Here’s the thing. Many people, when you mention a problem, feel obliged to help you fix it or fix it for you. When the problem is related to mental illness, though, that can be counterproductive.
The fact is, most serious mental illness can’t be fixed, at least not by a friend or loved one. To try is to invite frustration on the part of the fixer and worse feelings on the part of the fixee.
Some of the worst help we are offered are pep talks, which are meant to be encouraging. Smile more. Keep trying. Other people have it worse. Everyone goes through this.
No, says my stubbornly glitchy brain. Everyone does not go through a major depressive episode. And when I’m having one is not the time I can concentrate on what constitutes “worse.” I can try all I want, but my bipolar disorder isn’t going to just go away. And smiling when I’m ready to cry is a suggestion that denies my perception of reality and encourages me to lie about my feelings.
You can see much of this kind of advice on Facebook, for example. There are always memes that exhort you to look on the sunny side, have a positive mental attitude, or choose to be happy. But it’s easy enough to scroll by them.
These pep talks hurt more when they’re offered in person by someone you know or even love, especially when that person knows you have a mental disorder. You can’t just scroll by someone you love telling you that, in effect, it’s your own fault that you don’t get better.
I know these sentiments are kindly meant (except for the ones that blame you for your own condition). But the reality is that we can’t cure ourselves of SMI by smiling, or jogging, or thinking happy thoughts, or eating turmeric. We can’t cure ourselves at all.
But we can make things better, through therapy and medication, and yes, through some things that are not cures themselves but adjuncts to healing – physical activity, engagement, mindfulness, self-care, and the like. Who knows? Maybe even turmeric.
So, if pep talks don’t work, what can you do instead? What might actually help your friend or loved one? Here are a few suggestions.
Treat the person with mental illness the way you would treat a person with any other illness. I’m not suggesting sympathy cards are appropriate, but a phone call or text message saying you care is usually welcome.
Listen without judgment. Don’t offer advice. If the person opens up to you, respect that. Don’t minimize the problems. If the person doesn’t respond, wait a while and try again.
None of that will “fix” the person, but you know what? Neither will a pep talk. My brain, for one, is simply unable to process them, digs in its metaphoric heels, and says, “Oh, yeah?”
So, what are some things you can say instead of giving a pep talk? Try these.
I’m here for you.
You can always call me.
I’m sorry you’re hurting.
Tell me if you need anything.
Do you need distraction?
Do you need to be alone for a while?
Do you need to talk?
What can I do for you? (The answer may be, “nothing,” but at least you cared enough to ask.)
If you are also suffering from SMI, there is even more you can do. You can say, “I understand how you feel,” and mean it. You can recommend a therapist. You can congratulate the person on any accomplishment, the kind that wouldn’t seem like an accomplishment to anyone else.
In general, stay away from platitudes, feel-good sentiments, and quick fixes – unless you know that the person responds well to that kind of encouragement. They’re too easy to say and too hard to follow through on. Save them for people who are simply having a bad day, not someone who has mental illness.