Loving someone with a mental illness takes a lot of work. It is a labor of love, and neither the labor nor the love are easy all of the time. There are moments when the burden seems too heavy a load to carry — particularly when all you want is to take away the pain at whatever cost so the sufferer can feel some relief. In a moment of weakness, or at the onset of an episode, someone with a mental illness may feel isolated, humiliated, and ashamed, and the response of those who are available for support is crucial to seeing the sufferer through to other side.
In my experience with PTSD and the anxiety and depression that accompany it, the simple act of having someone who will listen, comfort, and reassure me have been, in part, the things that have given me the strength to not give up and to keep holding out for the light in the darker moments of my illness. And that is because words have the power to heal just as much as they have the power to hurt. Identifying what words help and can possibly breathe just enough life into someone’s spirit to get them through a rough moment, hour, or day, is necessary if you are to be a part of their circle of support. That said, here are 10 things that you can say to someone when you encounter them during a moment of panic, depression, or emotional distress related to their mental health:
1. ”You’re not alone in this.”
Feeling isolated in your suffering is one of the worst feelings to endure when you have a mental illness. Knowing someone is willing to walk with you through the experience rather than just pay you lip-service can be life-changing.
2. ”You are important to me. You matter to me and so do your feelings.”
Validating how someone feels rather than shaming, questioning, or trying to analyze it, also makes a great difference. Validation helps comfort the sufferer and can release them from feeling the kind of shame that at its worst, can drive people to self-destruct or self-harm.
3. ”Will you let me help you?”
Knowing that the people you love genuinely want to help you and don’t just feel obligated to out of pity is huge. The best way to show that is by offering to help before the person can ask for it (depending on the situation, of course). It could be as simple as getting them a cup of cold water and a snack, or as intense as doing deep-breathing exercises with them to calm them down during or after an anxiety/panic attack.
4. ”You are not going crazy.”
Blunt and to the point. Many sufferers of mental illness convince themselves they are crazy because of the way society approaches and treats the mental health conversation. Insensitivity and ignorance abound, that may never change, but assuring someone who feels crazy in the moment that they are not may help them see themselves differently.
5. ”If you are going crazy, than I want to go crazy with you.”
The sentiment here is a more light-hearted and humorous take on making sure the sufferer knows they are not alone. And that you are willing to walk with them through what they are going through.
6. ”You will survive this experience. And when it’s over, I will be here and so will you.”
State this as a fact. Because it is a fact.
7. ”This does not define you.”
Telling someone that their mental health struggle does not define who they are or what makes up their identity can release them from the fear that many sufferers and survivors have of being a lost cause or too broken or crazy to ever be seen as “normal” again. And that helps.
8. ”You did not ask for this or bring this on yourself.”
I did not ask for PTSD. Those that I know who are depressed or struggle with eating disorders or OCD did not ask for it. We are a product of many things, most of them being things we can not or could not control. And that is not our fault.
9. ”Be kind and gentle with yourself. You are doing the best you can.”
Identify that the person has already accomplished a lot and that they are doing the best the can, even if on the outside it doesn’t seem like it.
10. Funny stories.
No specific example here because it’s pretty simple: sometimes people who are in a great deal of psychological pain need something to laugh about. I mean really laugh about. “I dressed my dog up in people clothes the other day and it was funny,” might not cut it. Dig deep and try and unearth something bizarre and hilarious and stupidly funny that happened to you. Personal example: I have a friend who struggles with depression and in a moment of weakness, she called me, and I told her about how the day prior while at work when no one was looking, I took a piece of cake out of the fridge in the staff lounge area that didn’t belong to me with MY BARE HANDS. Yep. You read that right. I saw the cake and wanted a piece and didn’t want to waste time looking for utensils so I reached in there and grabbed a slice with my bare hand. Shameful? Yes. Hilarious? Yup. My friend laughed with me for about five solid minutes and I could tell she felt some relief which sometimes, in our darkest, most painful, and bleak moments, is all we need to know that we really will be okay. Because no matter how hopeless, ugly, or scary their world may seem, most people just want a friend.