"Lots of people with your illness live highly functioning and fulfilling lives."
As someone who's quite open about having bipolar disorder, I've experienced a number of unusual and upsetting responses from friends, co-workers and even some family members who didn't know how to deal with the information. Reactions like, “I feel like I'm walking on eggshells!” to, “You don't seem that bad!” are hurtful and unhelpful.
It is no wonder people are scared to admit their mental health struggles to others. I think the worst I got was a shocked, “And you still work with kids?”
When suffering mentally — with depression, anxiety or something more complex (which is not to say that those two aren't complex) — it isn't uncommon for friends/colleagues/family members to complain that they don't know what to say.
Well, wonder no more. Here are 10 things you should say to those struggling with their mental health.
1. "This will pass."
The clouded judgment which comes with mental health problems can render those who suffer blind to brighter times ahead. However, a reminder that panic attacks usually peak after 10 minutes, and then go through a decline which can last from 10 minutes to a few hours, can calm a person who is struggling.
Likewise, a person suffering from severe depression can sometimes only gain comfort in the knowledge that the feelign will pass, as it did last time and as it does with everybody. Not knowing when your depression will pass can cause anxiety, sure, but consciously thinking “This will pass” can save lives.
2. "Lots of people with your illness live highly functioning and fulfilling lives."
A lot of anxiety that comes with being diagnosed with a disorder like schizophrenia or bipolar is in one's anxiety that this now means that they're "disabled." Being diagnosed can be a confusing time. A gentle reminder of comedian Stephen Fry's bipolar disorder can work wonders for a sufferer's self-esteem and sense of hope. He lives a full life and so can you.
3. "My ears are open if you'd like to tell me more about that."
Often, especially in sufferers of depression, there lies the problem that “nobody wants to listen.” Whether this is a result of unfortunate acquaintances who really won't listen, or a false thought, you can be the person to help correct it.
I'm not suggesting you become their full-time agony aunt, but that you offer whatever time you can and digest what your friend says before you respond to it.
4. "It's interesting to hear about this from a first-hand perspective."
This can help a person's sense of purposefulness. Everybody likes to feel like they're a contributing member of society, and depressed people who are too unwell to work can become more depressed as they feel like a "burden" to others and believe that “everyone would be better off without them.”
If you give their depression value, you might make it feel slightly less unbearable. Don't push it, though — wait for them to speak.
5. "Would you like a coffee?"
They might not be the best company right now but if your friend is depressed, have a coffee with them and help them pass the time. Be nice and make an effort.
If you have a friend who is manic, have a coffee with them and see their funny side. If you have an anxious friend, take them for a decaffeinated coffee or a green tea, tell them you're paying for it beforehand, and talk to them about undemanding things.
6. "This funny thing happened the other day..."
Everyone wants to be treated like a "normal person," even if they know they don't appear that way. Remaining down to Earth when you don't understand a person's state of mind and telling them an easy-to-digest funny story can mean the world to somebody who is feeling isolated and insecure.
Everyone has a funny story up their sleeve. You don't have to have the most hilarious tale ever, just a genuine desire to make somebody feel better.
7. "I think this could make a good poem/song/painting/short story...could we try making it?"
Creativity can help mentally ill people make good us of their time and express themselves. If you encourage your friend to create art of any kind and offer them kind, honest and positive feedback, you'll help them find themselves again.
8. "If you're going through hell, keep going."
This quote from Winston Churchill inspires people to carry on their journeys. The word through is an encouraging statement for those in mental distress. Keep going, also, will subtly let your friend know that you care and want them there.
You don't have to quote it word-for-word, just express the sentiment in your own way — and mean it.
9. "Even if I don't understand, I will listen."
Yes, it's frustrating not understanding and yes, we all sometimes like to think we understand when we don't. But the truth is: Unless you've experienced a mental illness, you do not understand how it feels.
Even if you have read a lot about it, you do not understand. Even if you have known lots of sufferers, you do not understand. And that's OK. Your friend doesn't want you to understand their illness, they just want you to make an effort to understand their perception of it.
10. "Take care."
Said sincerely, "take care" can touch a sensitive, struggling person more than you might expect. “Take care” means “I care,” as well as “Care for yourself,” and these two messages are sometimes exactly what they needs to hear.