Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 34. During this time, we’re launched into the adult world, our bodies experience hormonal chaos and to top it off, we often don’t have the framework to cope with a mental illness. Nearly 20 percent of adults experience mental health issues in any given year, and it’s more than double for an undergraduate student.
Coping with your own mental illness is one thing, but how do you navigate that territory when someone close to you is going through hell? I interviewed six individuals with various forms of mental illness to gain insight to this question. It should be noted, no two mental illness experiences are the same, but collectively they reveal many parts of a whole truth.
RESPECT In a relationship where one or both parties are mentally ill, respect is the first crucial step. Much of that respect lies in listening to them and believing what they have to say about their experience. Maz Little, a College of Charleston student who struggles with anxiety and depression, said “Don’t dismiss them. Don’t say, ‘Well you were fine yesterday.’ If someone says to you, ‘I’m exhausted and can’t do this,’ and you respond this way, you lose their trust.”
“Anything you say to them about their illness should come from a place of respect,” said Bailey Swanson, a student with borderline personality disorder (BPD). “It shouldn’t be patronizing. It shouldn’t be because you want drama. It should be because you see this person as an independent entity that you want to see grow.” Intentionally starting drama or even trying to trigger a panic attack or flashback will only eliminate you as a friend, and may end up putting the other’s life in jeopardy. This may seem too cruel and unusual to ever happen, but three of the six people interviewed mentioned having such experiences.
IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU One very important thing to understand is that a person’s mental health cannot be separated from them. When a friend is experiencing a depressive episode, panic attack or any other form of ill health, the way they cope may make you feel excluded. You shouldn’t take this personally. Mental illness takes an enormous toll on a person physically and emotionally, and often they have limited energy to allocate to responsibilities and activities in daily life. Some people refer to this as the Spoon Theory, in which the chronically ill wake up with a certain number of “spoonfuls” of energy they must make last until they can recharge through rest. This theory was developed in 2003 by Christine Miserandino when she was trying to explain to her friend how her Lupus required her to carefully plan her day around her number of spoons. In our interview, Swanson referred to it as “bandwidth.”
“I don’t necessarily have the bandwidth to focus on things outside of myself sometimes. Sometimes focusing on my health means I need to sit with these feelings for a while. They’re really gross and it’s part of a process, and if I’m around anyone else I’m going to take it out on them and be a total buzzkill.”
Language and sentence structure become very important. “When your friend says I’m having trouble with X or I’m experiencing X, ‘what do you need?’ is a really important question. Not ‘what can I do for you?’ but ‘what do you need?’ because it puts the focus on the friend rather you,” said Little.
EDUCATE YOURSELF The internet is a fabulous resource – put it to use. Though some people with mental illnesses will be open to discussion, they are not an encyclopedia. This goes back to the Spoon Theory. Your friend may be low on spoons and the paper they need to write might not get done if they spend spoons on explaining why they can’t “get over” being depressed. That said, if they are willing to offer any insight as to what they are going through, be sure to listen and refrain from offering any unsolicited commentary. If you are particularly invested or interested in mental health topics, it may not be a bad idea to invest $20 in a used copy of “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (often referred to as DSM-5). Swanson admitted this is something she refers to often.
CHECKING IN If you notice your friend has been acting differently or has withdrawn, you will often need to make the first move. “People with depression and anxiety aren’t going to reach out. It’s good practice to check up on them,” said Little. A message out of the blue lets them know you care about them and are thinking about them.
One thing both he and Katy Moore, another interviewee, touched on is the importance of checking in on your friend in social situations, such as parties. This is especially true for Moore, who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I have a friend who has gotten very good at recognizing when I start to withdraw,” Moore said. “She’ll ask what I need, and if I say, ‘I feel uncomfortable. I want to leave,’ she won’t say ‘No, please stay and have fun.’ She’ll say, ‘Okay. Let’s go,’ and walk me home.”
“Providing that extraction is super important,” said Little, “If you don’t help them get out of those kinds of situations, you’re telling them you prioritize your fun over their mental health and sense of security.”
SET BOUNDARIES Even by attending each of the previous guidelines, in order to maintain a healthy relationship, boundaries may need to be set. In Swanson’s situation, it’s important for the safety of both parties. “It sucks to be in a relationship with someone in the throes of BPD because you become a target for abuse, rage and anxiety,” she said. “It’s hard to maintain friendships, and hard to have a healthy romantic relationship. You have so many irrational fears and assumptions and a perverted sense of self.”
In the end, you or your friend may decide to part ways. It’s never easy, whether temporary or permanent, on good terms or bad. They may need to take some time to focus on themselves. Mental illness is still an illness, and the path to wellness involves recuperation, support from loved ones and sometimes medication. It’s important to understand you can’t ‘fix’ them. You can certainly help but ultimately it’s their journey. It may be challenging, but when they have those victories – small or large – you both can feel a sense of accomplishment and celebrate together.
*This article first appeared in the October 2017 issue of The Yard.