How to walk beside someone with Mental Illness

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It is Mental Health Awareness Week. So I think this is a good quote of the week to choose (because I can’t pick the same one two weeks in a row).

When you are struggling with mental illness, you may not have the energy to lead, and you may not have the capacity to follow. What all of us need is people to just be with us and saying “I’m here, and I acknowledge that what you are going through sucks right now.”

I still follow Zach’s Mom, Laura Sobiech, on facebook and have done ever since I read her book, Fly A Little Higher. I think about the Sobiechs and the Aiffs a lot every May as it marks the anniversaries of the deaths of both Zach and Chris. The same as every Christmas I think of Oliver, and every February now I think of Kylie. Laura works for the Children’s Cancer Research Fund, and together with another Mom who has battled the conniving disease of cancer with their child they published a post today on the CCRF website called “What to say (and what not to say) to a family facing cancer“. It reminded me of a very similar post that Mark Myers wrote on his blog.

I’ve probably said several of the things on that What Not To Say list. And I’m really sorry that I have. Part of it is my overly practical logical side – years studying Health Sciences and spending waaayy too much time in the medical world caused me to learn too much. And makes me go ‘oh thank goodness it’s that type’ or inwardly think ‘there’s little hope here’. I’m trying to be better at filtering my thoughts so they don’t come out my mouth. Because they aren’t helpful.

I have a new hashtag. And it’s this: #cancersucks

However, as a friend is sharing daily tips about what to do/not to do with a friend struggling with mental illness, I realised reading that post, you could probably take that very same advice that Mark, Laura and Mindy have given…and rename the post “What to say (and what not to say) to a person facing mental illness”.

 

So What can you say?

This Sucks.

Don’t try to fix it, or make sense of the situation.

Because #mentalillnesssucks too.

It’s not the same as cancer. But like cancer there is no simple cure. There are many different types. Not every treatment plan works for every person. Sometimes it does result in death. You can think you’ve beaten it, go for years living your life only for it to come back.

I’ve been thinking of you today. 

It meant a lot for someone to send a text (which I could read when I felt able) to let me know they hadn’t forgotten me. Illness is isolating and often lonely.

Don’t ask me to make a decision

One of the things that struck me that both Laura and Mark mention were instead of asking “how can I help?” to offer something specific. I know so many times – when I was ill with CFS and when I’ve struggled on my darkest days with depression. I couldn’t answer that question. I didn’t even know how to help myself, never mind know how others could help me. But when someone text to say “I’m going to the supermarket, do you need anything and I can drop it off?” or “I could come pick you up if you’d like to go to church” (this was a godsend when I had CFS as some days I could barely walk). I could answer that with a yes or no. I could manage that! The same went for making any kind of decisions. I needed them to have a yes or no answer. And I also needed others to understand that if I had made an arrangement sometimes I could wake up and feel too awful.

Understand that I can’t plan how my illness is going to treat me on a day to day basis.

I also appreciated people understanding the nature of the beast I was fighting. One of the frustrations when I had CFS was that my immune system sucked. A simple cold that in the past I would have just carried on with life as usual would have me in bed for weeks. So there were times when my friends would let me know that they (or their kids!) had the sniffles and give me the option not to see them.

They also didn’t bat an eyelid when on good days I managed to get to church and was so exhausted by the effort that I’d have to lie down for most of the service at the back of the room. (Amusingly, I found out in later years that people thought I was ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ and that’s why I was lying on the floor!). I was there, and participating as much as I could and that was all that mattered. No big deal was made. Sometimes I sang on the worship team, but I needed a chair to sit. It meant a lot to still be able to do something I loved doing and only once did one of the pastors comment on the chair telling me it wasn’t very godly of me to sing sitting down.

We love you and we’re here for the long haul.

Know that mental illness doesn’t go away overnight. It can stick around for months and years. Usually (hopefully) there’ll be periods where it is better than others. Endurance is needed.

Meals.

When you don’t have time or energy to shop, and don’t feel like eating. A meal that is pretty much ready to go is so helpful. Healthy things (and a few nice treats) that you can snack on are helpful as sometimes if you have no appetite a big meal is hard. But we probably need to eat as it’s going to help make us better (or at least prevent us getting worse).

Encouragement.

Knowing that our lives still make a difference does help. The reason I’ve kept writing all throughout my life’s journey in good times and bad is because of the encouragement of others telling me that somehow I’ve helped/inspired/encouraged them. It gives us fuel for our continued fight.

 

Of course, everyone is different, and you might not agree with all of the above. And perhaps there are things that I’ve missed out. Please feel free as always, to add helpful tips in the comments.

And to Mark, Laura and Mindy – thank you for sharing your tips on what to say (and not to say) to families battling cancer. Though I wish you’d never had to endure watching your children go through all that they did with cancer and cancer treatments, I am thankful that you were willing to share what you learned so that hopefully I (and others) can be a better friend to those going through similar circumstances.

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