What someone struggling with a mental health disorder can teach all of us

What someone struggling with a mental health disorder can teach all of us

CultureOctober 26, 2016 By Joe Lafond

The broad category of mental illness is a tricky subject riddled with misunderstandings. It contains some of the most common afflictions faced by humans, yet we habitually avoid talking about them whenever possible. Right now, millions are suffering from some form of a diagnosable condition, all while those issues such as depression, anxiety and various personality disorders are still highly stigmatized.

Watching from the outside, it can be easy to write off someone’s mental health issues as being their own problem to deal with.

Maybe it’s just a phase.
Maybe they’ll grow out of it.
Maybe they just want attention.

These are hardly ever the case when it comes to chronic mental illness. And after years of watching a very dear friend of mine struggle under the oppressive weight of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), I‘ve learned to never write it off, along with several other important lessons about how to cope when someone you love is hurting on the inside.

Dealing with mental illness is never easy

You can look at all the handy infographics and PSAs you want, but trying to be there for someone with a mental illness — like depression or BPD — is never an easy road to navigate. Attempting to see things from your friend’s perspective is one of the most challenging obstacles in that road, but it is also the most necessary to overcome. It’s tough for someone who doesn't suffer from chronic depression to understand the perpetual melancholy felt by someone who does (this helpful comic from Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh explains it pretty well). Just remember, your friend sees the world in a completely different way than you do, and it only benefits your relationship to try understanding their perspective. 

Empathy and compassion are your greatest assets.

If you’re like me, chances are you try to actively help someone in need whenever possible. The cruel irony of most mental illnesses is that trying to assist usually ends up making things worse.

One of the most helpful things you can do to be there for your friend is listen and listen well. Empathy and compassion are your greatest assets in any attempts to be a friend and ally. Don’t get empathy confused with sympathy though. Chances are your friend doesn’t want you to feel bad for them; more likely, they just want to someone to validate their feelings (which are, in fact, just as valid as yours).

Obviously, being compassionate can be difficult if your friend exhibits behaviors that most people would consider inappropriate or unlikeable, but it gets easier if you put in a conscious effort to empathize … and practice patience. Among all of the resources on dealing with mental illness I’ve encountered, the ability to listen and empathize is at the heart of them all.

People with mental illnesses are still people

It’s important to remember that your friend with mental illness may have some limitations, but it is equally important to remember that he or she should not be treated differently (at least not overtly) due to these setbacks.

Granted, it can be easy to just go on treating them “normally” because their limitations aren’t as apparent as someone with physical restrictions, but try to remember that person’s condition when making plans.

It might not be the best idea to take a friend with anxiety into an awkward, high-stress situation that triggers unnecessary feelings for everyone involved. Rather than guessing what may or may not set someone off, it’s best to just ask them, “hey, are you comfortable with this?”

Your honesty and awareness of their feelings will likely be appreciated.

Don’t forget to look out for yourself too

Mental illness doesn’t just affect the person, it affects everyone who loves that person too.

It can be easy to get caught up in trying to help, and before long, your own health starts feeling a little shaky too. As much as you want to help out, be sure to check in with your own wellbeing while you’re at it.

Ironic as it seems, some therapy or counseling may be just as beneficial for the person trying to help as it is for the one suffering. Remember, there’s no shame in stepping back to care for yourself. At the end of the day, your friend is ultimately responsible personally just as you are for your own life.

Most importantly, remember you're not alone

Whether you have mental health issues yourself or just know someone who does, remember that you are never alone, even though it may feel that way sometimes. If you or someone you know is suffering from mental illness, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. The good folks at the National Alliance on Mental Illness provide great resources on their website, or you can browse the listing of Behavioral Health Organizations at Colorado.gov.