How To Not Be A Jerk To People With Mental Illness | #GetLoud | CMHA

May 1-7 is Canadian Mental Health Awareness Week and I've spend the last week thinking about this crucial topic and what exactly I wanted to say about it. Most of us have personally been affected by mental health or know someone who has, yet, even still, we have a long way to go in our collective approach to educating and supporting each other. 

I have struggled with anxiety and depression off and on for over a decade. I've been lost in the maze of depression, I've felt the claustrophobia of panic attacks, I've been sad - really, really sad - and even I have found myself humbled and corrected by my outlook on mental health from time to time. The stigma surrounding mental illness has been surviving for years off the naive and ill-informed mind. It is often our lack of understanding that keeps us from the all-encompassing empathy that our loved ones need in order to feel whole, even in their times of deep depression. 

I reached out to my dear friends of the We All Believe In You project and asked them 'how can people not be jerks when you are struggling?' and this is their collective response. Please read with an non-defensive heart and listen to these 5 ways to not be a jerk to people with mental illness:

  1. "I understand how you feel" isn't a consolation when it's coming from someone who hasn't personally experienced mental illness. There is no comparison chart for sadness. Mental illness isn't a simple math equation we can make sense of; depression and sadness are not necessarily the product of shitty life experiences. Sometimes they just are, you don't need something terrible to happen to you to feel darkness. If you don't understand how your friend feels, be honest and ask questions. If understanding still eludes you, stay out of the judgement zone and smother them with love. 
  2. Greeting card wisdom isolates the person struggling even further. Phrases like "hang in there, you got this!" doesn't stop the dominant, loud voice in their head that is telling them to quit, give up and end the pain. How about the classic line "Everything happens for a reason" which, upon being spoken, vacuums the air right out of the room leaving behind a void that is quickly filled with confusion and isolation. You can't make a statement that general about something so complex. Justifying why something happened doesn't lessen the pain of the fallout. Or "It's just a phase, you'll be back to yourself in no time," for some people, there is never a time without depression; there is just less crushing depression. Mental illness can change and distort reality, making it really hard to decipher where "I" begin and the "Illness" ends. Sadness and suffering is uncomfortable, it really, really is. The best approach when wanting to help someone struggling is to stop trying to fix them or cheer them up (because let's face it, this helps US feel better), and instead try to be the positive in their life that they cannot be.
  3. Suicide isn't selfish, it's a very drastic measure from someone who was experiencing very drastic, all-consuming pain. Some people live with a pain that attacks and paralyzes them every moment, of every day. They've sought help, they've tried counselling, therapy, prescription drugs and every other desperate plea to the heavens to just. feel. happy. and it didn't work. Suicide isn't a time for debating someone's character, it's a time to be humbled by the depths we will all go to be free; free from pain, free from sadness. It's also a time to take action, either politically, socially or personally, to help raise awareness about mental illness and better support those who are suffering. 
  4. Depression doesn't need to be hidden. It's not a dirty little family secret, and when you keep depression secretive within a family, it only says to the person struggling "you should feel ashamed." People are always trying to contain mental illness, they don't want to show the mess. Friends; depression needs to be talked about, brought into the light, de-stigmatized. It might be awkward, it might not be smooth, it might cause confusion, but, dear ones, we all know that everything is better in the light. 
  5. "Stay positive" isn't a helpful thing to hear. You might be able to self-talk your way through an anxious time using meditation and mindfulness techniques, and while these are great tools for coping; they are not in and of themselves the secret cure for mental illness. Trust me when I say that those living with mental illness would love a clear cut, one-size-fits-all cure. Just because yoga or acupuncture or meditation or herbs or fresh air or laying upside-down for an hour a day helps you with your difficult time doesn't mean it will them. True mental illness needs an attack on all fronts; it requires an active and caring medical team, regular therapy, proper drug treatment plans, a supportive community, self-care and exercise just to name a few. There is no secret cure, and in most cases, there is never a cure. There is the heroic and admirable act of learning to live a full and capable life with depression or anxiety as your constant companion. 

Truly, the best thing you can do for a friend or loved-one who is struggling with mental illness is show up. Don't shy away from hard conversations, don't be afraid of someone else's pain. Invite it all in. These strong people whose battle is constant just need to feel safe. They need to feel safe when they are having a good day just as much as when they are having a bad day. Make room for them and see them for who they are, which is one beautifully imperfect human - just like you. 

Photograph by Blake Loates and used with permission.