The first time I was admitted to a psychiatric ward, I didn’t tell anyone—not my friends, not my roommate, not even my mother. Any of those people would have shown up to support me in a heartbeat, but I couldn’t stand the thought of telling them. For one thing, I was humiliated about the whole thing; being suicidal felt more like a character flaw than an actual illness, something that I had created myself through negligence or weakness. But I also hesitated to say anything because disclosing that I was was mentally ill often had the opposite effect than what I hoped: I wanted reassurance and help, but instead I wound up feeling more uncomfortable and overwhelmed than before.
While I’ve since learned how to better handle my own internalized stigmas about mental illness, I still have a hard time talking about it. I’ve realized that this isn’t because I don’t know what to say—I’ve developed a pretty good vocabulary about the various ways my brain manifests its particular brand of misery—but rather because other people don’t. We just don’t have a solid social playbook on what to say to someone who’s struggling with their mental health, and because of that we end up failing our loved ones when we most want to offer support.
What would that kind of playbook look like? I’m not an expert, but I can offer a few concrete tips that I’ve found really useful both during my own crises and and those of friends.
Recognize that if someone discloses their mental illness, it means that they trust you
We have this cultural narrative that people who talk about mental illness are “just looking for attention.” This is weird on a number of levels. I mean, first of all, what’s wrong with wanting someone to pay attention to you? We all need attention sometimes. Second of all, the attention people usually get for talking about their mental health is typically not what I would describe as positive attention. So if someone tells you that they’re having a hard time, the subtext is often “… and you’re one of the few friends I can talk to about that.” It’s a compliment, not a burden.
Please don’t give unsolicited advice
Don’t ask them if they’ve seen a doctor. Don’t tell them to try therapy. Don’t suggest medication or yoga or long baths. I guarantee you that your friend has already considered many of these things; you’re certainly not the first person to ask if they’ve tried pot to help their anxiety. If they ask for your advice, that’s a completely different ballgame, but offering it unsolicited is, at best, deeply unhelpful. It also ends up centring you and your experiences instead of those of the person who’s struggling.
Follow the tone of the person disclosing
If they want to keep it light and casual, try to match that in your response. If they’re being pretty serious about it, don’t make a joke. Again, this discussion is about them and their experiences (unless they’re asking you to share your experiences), so do your best not to centre it on your personal feelings.
Be specific about what kind of help you’re offering
I know that people who say, “Just let me know if I can do anything!” have the best of intentions, but I never know how to respond to that offer. What if I ask for too much, or something they’re not willing to give? Or, sometimes, if I’m really overwhelmed, I know that I need something but I can’t find the words to say what that is. Because of these things, I much, much prefer when people say things like, “Would you like to grab coffee this week and talk about it?” or “Do you want me to come over?” or “Can I order you some food?” Not only do these kinds of offers save me the embarrassment of asking you for help you might not be able to provide, but being able to just answer yes or no (instead of trying to come up with a reply to an open-ended question) is helpful when I’m deep in a depressive brain fog.
Rejection isn’t personal
Your friend might not follow your advice, even if they asked you for it. They might not want any of the help you offer. They might not handle the situation the way you think they should. This might frustrate you, but again, the focus should be on their feelings, not yours. If someone doesn’t take your advice, it’s not meant as a personal insult. Suggestions, like gifts, should be freely given, without any expectation of how the recipient will use them.
Often what I need the most when I’m struggling with my mental health is someone who will let me talk about it without judgment or comment. One of the hardest things about living with mental illness is feeling like you can’t talk about it, so having someone who offers you the space to do just that is invaluable.
These tips are mostly based on my personal experiences and aren’t hard and fast rules that apply to everyone, but I find that keeping them in mind usually makes things easier for everyone involved. Talking about mental health is often hard, but it doesn’t have to be. Changing how we manage these discussions is one small way that we can make this world a better, healthier place for everyone.
More from Anne Thériault:
Reflecting on the Day I Did My Best To Die, and Then My Best to Live
Treating My Depression with Magnets: Not Cured, But Cautiously Optimistic
The Way I Was Treated at a Hospital After My Suicide Attempt Was Humiliating
People Who Die by Suicide Don’t Forfeit the Right to Privacy