So, like some of you, I have a mental illness, and like many of you, I have friends and loved ones with mental illnesses, too. It’s quite a ride – you never know when someone might show up at your door, ring your phone, bail on your plans, or randomly announce that they’re on the verge of some kind of attack. It’s certainly not the chillest of circumstances, but if you want to help, I have a little advice from my personal experience and the experiences of my friends that might make helping a little easier. So let’s dive right in:
- Give them a small, productive task to do.
One time, I was hanging out in my student apartment in Bamberg, making salsa, and a friend who also lived in that building showed up in my door in tears. Of course, I let her in, but then – not quite wanting to bail on my salsa, either – I gave her a knife and a cutting board and asked her to help me dice vegetables. It seemed to help, and it gave us something to do with our hands while we hashed out what was bothering her. It might seem a little counterproductive to put your suffering friends to work, but when you’re feeling really down, you might also feel totally useless, like you can’t do anything right in your life. Completing a small task can be a much-needed reminder that you are not useless and that even if you can’t do everything, you can do something.
- Talk to them like you always would.
This is especially effective for people suffering from anxiety or panic. Once, I randomly – and seriously, out of nowhere – started having an anxiety attack at a friend’s house while we were hanging out in her room, something we’d already done dozens of times before. I suddenly felt like the walls were closing in on me, and I told her I needed some fresh air or I would lose it. So we went out on her porch, and while I was out there, hyperventilating and crying and shaking and rocking back and forth, she told me about her day at work in such a calm voice, like she would have any other time, like she would talk to me if I was also totally calm. It brought me back down to Earth real fast, because I was reminded that no, the world is not ending. Everything’s fine. Everything’s normal. Her unaffected tone of voice and choice of topic really sped up the calming-down process for me.
- Ask them if they want to play a game.
Or watch a reality show or make silly art. Doing something mindless and fun can be a good way of taking your mind off your troubles. One side effect of mental illness is that sometimes, instead of going straight to solving the problem on your mind, you think about it over and over and over until you are paralyzed with anxiety and completely incapable of doing anything. Start off with easing your mind. Do something fun, take care of your immediate needs. Then take a deep breath and handle the hard stuff.
- Help them formulate a plan.
For the same reasons as above, it can be hard to know what to do next when you’re suffering from psychological pain. Ask your friend what they’re going to do tonight and tomorrow to take care of themselves, do the things they have to do (work or school or whatever), and relax afterwards. Give them suggestions about things you know might make them happy. My boyfriend does this for me, and it always helps.
- When in doubt, ask them what they need or what you can do for them.
Nobody knows what you need like you do! If you’re at a loss, just ask your friend what would help. Maybe they need you to go with them to do a scary errand or they could really go for a coffee or they would just like it if you two could sit in silence and ignore each other (read separate books, do whatever on separate laptops, etc. – I’m all about super low-key chillin’).
- Don’t put too much pressure on them to cheer up or be happy.
There is a lot of focus in society on being thankful for what you have and staying positive and that’s cool and all, but it leads some of us to be a bit overzealous about pushing our happy-world philosophies on other people. Sometimes people are sad, and that’s fine. It’s important to feel your feelings, and when it’s time to let them go, then do that. No need to rush to that part, not for you, and not for your friend.
I’m sure there’s plenty of important things I’ve forgotten. I’m sure I’ll write another post like this in the future, but if you can come up with something, then feel free to write it in the comments.