One of the challenging things about a mental health crisis is that often, even the people that care about you aren’t quite sure how to be there for you. After getting diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I lost a lot of friends during a time when I most needed support from them.
In some cases, the real issue wasn’t a lack of caring — I believe that some people simply didn’t know how to respond to what was happening. That’s perfectly understandable, but I truly wish that more people had at least tried to be there for me. Here are a few of the things that friends did that meant a lot to me, as well as some things I wish more people would have done:
1. Do some research.
A friend of mine actually took the time to research bipolar disorder so she could better understand what I was going through. This simple act meant so much to me — it showed me that even though she didn’t understand everything that I was dealing with, she cared enough to learn how she could better empathize.
2. Ask me what I need.
If you aren’t sure how to be there for your friend, don’t just back away out of uncertainty. Ask them, “What can I do to help you through this?” A friend of mine actually talked to her own therapist to better understand how she could respond to me. If someone very close to you is struggling — such as a family member or a significant other — attending one of their therapy sessions with them can be a great way to learn what they are going through and how you can support them.
3. Don’t take things personally.
In my case, my mental breakdown involved psychosis, and some people took what I said to them during this episode very personally and literally. I had to make a slew of apologies that involved the explanation, “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t myself.” Some people totally understood and didn’t get offended, but others never quite forgave me. I’ve had to accept the fact that some people just weren’t able to understand the nature of what happened. That said, if you are dealing with a friend with mental illness and they say something that upsets you, wait until they are better and then have a conversation with them about it. Rather than jumping to conclusions, give them the opportunity to apologize and explain what was really going on.
4. Don’t try to solve everything.
There’s nothing worse than going through a painful situation or a loss and having someone try to convince you that, “It’s not really that bad.” I understand the desire to solve someone’s problems or make them feel better in the moment, and I realize that it comes from a good place. But sometimes, people are going through things that are hard, and when you try and fix things for them, it can seem like you are trivializing something that’s difficult. Instead of trying to be a fixer, just do what my friend does. She listens to me when I talk, and when I tell her something terrible that I’m going through she says, “That really sucks. I’m sorry that you have to go through that.” Sometimes, that’s all I want to hear.
5. Let me deal with things at my own pace.
This goes hand in hand with “don’t try to solve everything.” Whether someone is dealing with a mental health issue, a traumatic event, or a devastating loss, don’t expect them to move on from it quickly. I had a friend who genuinely cared about me, but who often made me feel like I needed to, “just get over it.” The truth is, mourning what happened is a part of the process of “getting over it”, and pushing myself to move beyond something that I haven’t fully processed yet isn’t healthy. Don’t judge someone else’s progress by how long you believe it should take them to get over something. Give them the time and space to deal with things in their own way and be patient with them through that process.
6. Check in to see how I’m feeling.
Dealing with a mental health issue is an ongoing battle. I have days where I feel totally fine, and I have days where something triggers me into feeling depressed all day. It never hurts to check in with someone to find out how they’ve been feeling lately.