Mental illness has physical repercussions, not unlike other ailments. When a friend suffers from a mental illness, reach out the same way you would if she had the flu, a critical diagnosis or a surgery.
Here are some suggestions of ways you can accompany a friend on the journey.
1) If you think mental illness is a matter of weak will or a defect of character, inform yourself. Read a book or watch a movie.
Writer William Styron’s memoir of mental illness, “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness”is especially interesting.
Styron did not experience depression until late in life, so he is able to reflect on his lack of compassion prior to his own diagnosis. He wrote,
“Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self -- to the mediating intellect-- as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.”
A little reading goes a long way in creating empathy and understanding.
For an extensive list of memoirs by people with mental illness, click here.
If you prefer movies,“Silver Linings Playbook" is an excellent portrayal of bipolar depression. The scene in the movie “The Hours,” when Julianne Moore tries to bake a cake, is a great example of how depression can make everyday tasks insurmountable.
2) A person in the throes of mental illness has low confidence and is unlikely to ask for help. Saying, “Let me know if I can do anything,” is vague and noncommittal. Be proactive.
- Drop by with a healthy meal. Sick people don’t cook.
- Help your friend navigate her insurance website, finding a psychiatrist or counselor on her plan who isn’t too far away. A depressed or anxiety-ridden person has trouble focusing and insurance websites can bring the healthiest person to tears.
- Offer to drive her to the doctor. Again, she has trouble focusing. Driving is difficult.
- Offer to take a walk with her. If she declines, be persuasive. The fresh air, sunshine and exercise is recuperative and vital.
- Call, text, send a note or an email. Affirm your role in her life. When struggling with mental illness, people tend to isolate themselves. Then they think they have no friends, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Keep in touch.
- Watch funny movies with your friend. Laughter is the best medicine.
3) What her brain is telling her about herself or her situation is much, much worse than anything she’ll admit to you. If you have never experienced anxiety or depression, it is difficult to imagine the labyrinthine paths self-critical thoughts can take.
Helping her to count her blessings is beneficial, but try not to minimize her feelings or perspective.
4) Phone calls are exhausting. She might be too tired to talk. If you can’t get a response via text or email, show up. Just sit with her.
5) If you’re concerned about suicide, call 911.
Beyond that, don’t use prayer intentions, concerns for your friend’s well being or your own feelings of helplessness, as veiled forms of gossip. As with any serious illness, allow your friend the dignity to decide who knows.
For more information, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness or call: 1 (800) 950-NAMI (6264).
Physical Health Impacts of Mental Illness. NMHCCF.org. Retrieved December 1, 2014.
Mental Illness: Symptoms. mayoclinic.org. Retrieved December 1, 2014.
Support Lines You Can Call in Times of Need. Retrieved Dec. 4, 2014.
Reviewed December 4, 2014
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith