Having mental illness problems is miserable, for all kinds of different reasons. One of the most awful is that you don’t have a disease that people can see. You are struggling with a real illness, but they might think that you are lazy, or cranky, or just moping. Surely you could snap out of it if you only tried!
You start wishing that you had some other ailment--like a broken leg, or chicken pox, or head lice, or ANYTHING with obvious or well-understood physical effects. Something that everyone believes is real, and where everyone knows how to treat you.
I’ve been thinking about this recently, and I realized that one of the best ways we can support people with mental illness is by acting like they have a physical disease. Because they do! And because we have basically good ideas about how to help people with long-term physical illness: take them a meal, offer to run errands, send them a card, things like that. We don’t have a similar cultural protocol for mental illness, for lots of reason. One of them is that you might not even know that someone is depressed, while a broken leg is pretty obvious. But if you know someone who is mentally ill, you can get a lot of mileage out of doing the following things.
1. Take them a casserole (or whatever meal)
Yes! Do it! They truly are sick, and most likely they don’t feel like cooking. Having someone bring a meal means that they have a great meal, and that someone loves and cares for them.
2. Offer to run errands
When you’re struggling with mental illness the littlest task can become terrifying and exhausting. Ask your friend what they are most dreading right now, and offer to help them through it. Maybe it’s making a phone call, maybe it’s accompanying them to the doctor or the DMV, maybe it’s taking care of a long-delayed repair. Sometimes you can help to lighten immense burdens by doing things that are very easy for you.
3. Do chores around the house for them
This requires a certain level of intimacy, but keeping up with the housekeeping is really hard when you’re depressed (heck, it’s hard when I’m not depressed!) so offering to help someone put their space to rights could be a big help.
4. Send flowers
Flowers are always good.
5. Send a card
6. Talk about the mental illness.
This again is something that the person you want to love has to be comfortable with, but being able to complain about the mental illness with others can help. People with physical ailments are allowed to complain about them. I think what can make mental illness tricky is that it feels so close--people suffering from it worry that the mental illness is them. By griping about it together, you establish that it isn’t them. It’s something they they are surviving. My sisters and I have had lots of conversations about how depression is the worst, and it helps to create some distance.
7. Buy presents
Presents are always great!
By treating your friends with mental illness like you would a friend with a physical illness, you are telling them that you believe that their illness is REAL. That alone is incredibly helpful. And then all the actual help and support is just frosting on the cake.