How to Encourage Women Struggling with Mental Illness

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

When a friend or loved one is in the midst of a struggle with mental illness, it can be really tough to know the right things to say. This is especially true if she is newly diagnosed or has not received treatment. Even as someone who has a clinical diagnosis of OCD, its sometimes hard for me to muster up anything other than an honest "I know. I've been there. I'm sorry." when confronted with emotionally charged conversations.

Would it be helpful to hear some of the more brilliant things I've said or heard along my journey, either in conversations with friends and family or my therapist? I hope so. I want to share the most encouraging words of support I've both given and received about coping with mental illness. The following are the examples and their accompanying encouragement.

"I don't want to talk to anyone about this (doctor, therapist) or get help. Its scary."

Its SO scary, right? Its completely normal to feel hesitant to share how you're feeling with anyone, especially a stranger. They don't know you. They don't know all the things you're good at. They don't know what I know about you - that you're an amazing person and capable of great things. But I think you'll find that talking it out with them might help. Hear me out. They may not know you personally, but they know the brain and they know depression/PPD/OCD etc. You felt better after talking to me, right? They are here to help and listen too. They have special skills like knowing what to look for, how to give you a proper diagnosis, and how to help you with medicine and therapy. They can help you in ways that I can't!

I know its super scary because you've never done it before. But you're brave, you're strong, and you can do this. (Once they are ready:) How can I help you? Do you need help finding a psychiatrist? Do you need someone to go with you to your appointment? Do you need a babysitter for your kids? Let me know how I can help you!

"I am a bad person/mom for feeling this way/having a mental illness."

I understand how you could feel that way. There's a lot of bad energy/juju around mental illness. But here's the thing. Mental illness is just a physical thing. Your body had some bad luck. Seriously, what probably happened is that the universe read the hormone recipe wrong and you were born with some kind of weird cocktail that makes up this illness. It didn't even bother to send a note tied to your toe to let anybody know in advance. What the heck, right?

Your mental illness has everything to do with your body but absolutely nothing to do with your soul. To quote the fabulous C.S. Lewis, "You are not a body. You are a soul. You have a body." Your mental illness does not change your love for your family, your spouse, or your friends. It doesn't change your limitless creativity or your beautiful voice when you sing. It doesn't change how smart you are, how kind you can be, how hardworking your heart is. It can, however, change how strongly you feel those inner qualities and how you're able to act on them. Because your body is what you live in, it does affect you. To say otherwise would be a heavily sugar-coated lie. But your illness doesn't change the most important things that make you who you are. 

"I'm afraid I am crazy/going crazy. The real kind of crazy."

I bet so many people who have (insert mental illness here) feel that way too! Can I tell you a secret? Everyone is crazy.

Your mama? Crazy. 
Your husband? Crazy. 
Your bff? Crazy. You know it too.
Your frenemy? Cray cray.

Everyone here is crazy. Don't buy into the spectrum thing either. No one is more crazy than anyone else. We are all here with our own challenges, secrets, and inner demons that we grapple with every day. Crazy is just a word that people use to define something or someone they don't understand. Don't let that define you.

And if you're really worried about being 'crazy', let me put your mind at rest: If you had actually lost your mind, you wouldn't know it AND you'd be thrilled. Do you feel ignorant and blissful? No? Okay. You're just as sane as me. *cackle cackle cackle*

"People are going to judge me."

Yeah, they probably are. Jerks.

What matters is that you are taking care of yourself. The people who really matter, like your spouse and your children, they need you. They need you so much more than you need the people who will judge you for having a mental illness/taking medication/being in therapy. You need your health and peace more than you need judgement. There are people in your life who love you no matter what. Listen to their voices and tune out the others. Also, the haters have no room to talk *see "I'm afraid I'm crazy" point above*.

"I want to die."

*If someone says this to you, find help ASAP. I suggest the 100% confidential National Suicide hotline or calling it yourself. Is there anxiety about calling? That's okay, the Crisis Text Line has you covered.*

Those are really tough and scary feelings to have. I'm so sorry that you have had to carry them for so long. I'm here to help. Here's some ideas I have (mention the hotline, text line, ER, therapist, whatever resources you have available). Which sounds best to you? How would you like to move forward with this?

"Why is this happening to me?"

Why do you have brown hair? Why do you have freckles? Why are your feet size 8 instead of size 5.5? Why does your sis wear glasses and you don't? Its just a part of how your body was made.

Does it suck? Yes. Is it difficult and inconvenient to deal with? OMG yes. It might be awkward at first, but as you become more familiar with your mental illness you will learn that this is just another part of you that needs to be loved and accepted. *See also "I'm a bad person" and "I'm going crazy" points.*

"I feel like this will last forever" and its cousin, "I don't want to deal with this anymore."

*This phrase most often comes when someone has been struggling for a long time without help or are newly diagnosed. Its just part of the process.*

It sounds like you've been feeling this way for a really long time. I can't even imagine how difficult that's been (or if you can because you have mental illness too, its okay to say so). I am so proud of you for being strong and brave while you dealt with those feelings. Seriously, you are a freakin' star! And I'm even more proud of you for reaching out and getting help. Once you talk to someone/start medication/get a few months into therapy those feelings will start to subside a little bit. You do not have to carry that load alone any longer. You have good support and help now. Soon you'll feel a bit lighter. Hang in there. You're almost there. You can do it!

"This is too much for me to handle."

You're right. This is too much for you to handle, because you're just one person, right? You're just one person.

Well, Just One Person, I'm really excited to tell you that this is not too big for you with your spouse, your family, your friends, your therapist, and your doctor to handle. You have an awesome support group. Between all of them, you all can handle the load together. They are your team and they are there to help you. You don't have to do it alone anymore.

A note for friends and family of those with mental illness

If your loved one has confided in you, it has taken tremendous courage on their part to open up to you. They trust you and your relationship enough to risk sharing their thoughts and feelings of shame, worthlessness, hopelessness, and fear. Honor their bravery by receiving them with unconditional love. 

The words you speak in these moments are powerful. Do everything you can to make them compassionate. Be honest if you're not sure what to say or do. In some cases, the best thing I have done is ask the person what it is they want me to say or do. Sometimes I speak the words they give me. Sometimes I give a hug. Sometimes I help them find help. Its okay if you've never dealt with this before. They never have either. Its okay to figure it out together.

That being said, responsibility for their healing does not depend on you. You cannot go to appointments for them. You cannot do their homework for them. You can't take their pills for them. You can't be mindful for them. They must do these things themselves. You can support them in their journey but healing is 100% their job.

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Friends, I hope this gives you some good ideas for helping someone who is relying on you for support and encouragement. The most important parts of being there for someone who is struggling is to be kind, understanding, and a good listener. Be honest and be yourself. My style is pretty humorous and sarcastic because that is how I deal with hard things; however, I am very careful to never make fun of someone struggling or make a joke at their expense. I am on their team and I see it as us against the problem. Your style may be different but no matter what it is, if its empathetic, supportive, and loving, it will always be the right thing to say.

Has someone shared encouraging words with you about mental illness? Have you shared any yourself? I'd love to hear them!
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