One of my friends lives with mental illness. Upon asking her if I could share with KindMind the unique and special dynamic of our friendship (“special” in a way different from what you might think), she had this to say about her experience with mental illness. I wanted to put it in my own words, but I think that it’s more important that you read this from her:
“When you talk about mental illness, describe it as suffer from a mental illness/have a mental illness rather than ‘are mentally ill,’ because you don't really say a person with cancer is diseased or ill, you say they have cancer. You don’t say ‘an autistic child,’ but ‘a child with autism.’”
I personally don't hate the term "mental illness." I believe that people should equate the term mental illness to what an illness is: a disease or period of sickness affecting the body or mind. It is not a character trait of a person, nor is it something that a person experiencing it has any control over. We know not to tell someone in bed with cancer to try harder to not be sick, or look at them as any less of a person for having cancer. Because we can't see mental illness, society treats it differently and sees it as the person not trying hard enough—we put the fault on them.
We see the past—asylums and straight jackets—and hold that as our background or foundation for our current understanding of it, though it is getting better. Nobody really talks about mental illness on a personal level because they are ashamed. This is due to social stigma, which causes the gradual change in understanding of mental illness to move very slowly.
When you look at my friend—a young woman with big, beautiful brown eyes and a passion for community service, children, and DIY inspirational posters—you would never believe she is “mentally ill.” She is compassionate, the type of person you just want to snatch up and cuddle every time you see her. She is a great listener, and an even better person to eat Chinese food in your pajamas with on a Wednesday night. She loves Jason Mraz, motivational videos, and her dog Rudy. She’s the type of person to use a meal swipe just go back into the dining hall so that you don’t have to eat alone, even though she just had lunch. If you know her, she is your sunshine on a rainy day.
But sometimes, I’ll text her at 6PM and she won’t respond because she’s asleep and has skipped all her classes and hasn’t eaten. I’ll ask her what’s wrong and she’ll text me back with “idk.” So what do I do? I go to her place and sit down on the couch next to her and get wrapped up in a blanket together. Maybe she’ll want to talk about it. Maybe she’ll want to cry, or maybe she’ll say nothing. Whether she tells me everything that’s bothering her or not, whether I truly understand what she is going through or not, I’m there. There are moments when just being there is more than enough for someone who is suffering in ways that they cannot express nor control.
To those who do not have mental illness, this might sound like someone who is going through a bad break-up or having an off day. From what I have seen as an outsider peering in, for some people these “off days” are part of a string of even more off days, which can make for an off year or even an off life. I have seen my friend’s eyes light up with the fire of joy for life, and also dull from the unrelenting pain of it; none of us really know what is going on in someone else’s head unless they want us to. Even then, most times we don’t even know half of the story. That’s okay—it’s not something to be offended about, but rather something to respect. Not everyone is comfortable with sharing what they might view as a debilitating vulnerability.
My friend had this to say:
“For some people these off days can potentially lead to off weeks which could potentially lead to long off periods throughout their life and subsequently lead them to ponder their quality of life. They might feel unloved, hopeless, helpless, and ultimately question whether they are worthy of life at all.
To describe what depression is like to someone, I ask them to think about the worst day of their life. Then I ask them to imagine having their worst day two days in a row, then a week, 2 weeks, a month, a year. Imagine how hopeless you would feel if every day you woke up feeling just as bad as you did yesterday no matter how hard you try. Can you even put into words what is wrong? Would you really feel like getting out of bed, going to class, trying, or even continuing to fight the impending doom you feel, or would you just want to call it quits?”
I know that, of course, there are the times that come “too late,” or dangerous instances where information we could have used to save someone is held from us. These are extreme circumstances that drive me to emphasize the need for just being a good friend. This is what makes the relationship I’m writing about “special” beyond the context of mental illness. When it comes to my friend, she is a good friend to so many people. Before she told me, I never would have guessed that she experiences both anxiety and depression. Once she told me, it was like the floodgates were opened for social awareness. She creates and holds presentations on campus to educate others on the stigma that surrounds mental illness. She discusses various coping mechanisms for both those experiencing mental illness and those supporting others. She openly shares her story with others in the hope that those who share it will engage in her positive and encouraging dialogue. Not many people put themselves out there so willingly and courageously, but my friend is such a special and bright person beyond how “special” her situation makes her.
If you have a friend like who has a mental illness, encourage and support them. Show up to their clubs and presentations, read up on the tools and resources they use to feel well.
As my girl puts it:
“What is really important about a depressed person with at least one good friend is that they are not the ‘some people’ mentioned above. When they have a supportive friend, though they may still have off weeks, or long off periods of time, by the undying actions of their friend they know they are loved. And that is enough to feel a slight glimpse of help, hope, and worth. These actions and this love is what encourages them to fight before the bad days radically multiply and the light of hope dwindles to a smoking wick. What’s amazing, and what we must become aware of, is that we all have the power to keep each other’s wicks aflame.”
What I feel here is that we need not necessarily seek to “understand” our friends, as none of us can truly understand how mental illness affects others, but to cherish them for who they are. Having a friend who has a mental illness is no different than having any other friends. Just as it is important for us to help them be mentally healthy, we also do our part in keeping them socially healthy as well. To be afraid of friendship with someone because of their mental illness is silly and unfair; to think it’s something you will never experience is unrealistic. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million people—experience mental illness in a given year.Is mental illness something we ourselves can control? No. Is it something we can stop our friends from having? No. Is it something we can help them live through? Yes!
You can learn a lot from a friend with “mental illness.” Your friend has much more to them than what their medical diagnosis alone may tell you. So be supportive, be compassionate, and most of all just be a friend, because in the end that’s all it is—just two friends being friends.