I guess I’m old-fashioned, and admitting this makes me feel very old… but I love to send and give cards to people. There are a lot of options for card themes and occasions out there. The classics: birthdays, anniversaries, and weddings. The holidays: Christmas, Easter, July 4th, Hanukah, Veterans Day….
Thank you cards. Get-Well cards. Sympathy cards. There are a LOT of cards, and I love sending them.
But, when it comes to sending a card to someone struggling with their mental health, sometimes it’s very hard for me to find the right one. A get-well card sometimes fits. Sometimes, I can find a recovery card here or there. It seems like maybe the card-writers don’t know what to say to someone struggling with mental illness.
But it’s not just them. Many of us, myself included here, sometimes struggle to know what to say or what to do when someone we know, and love is struggling. I certainly don’t have all the answers to this one, friends - there isn’t a one-size-fits-all catchphrase - but I can share a few of the things I’ve wanted to hear along the way, and things I wish hadn’t been said. Maybe they will help you get your inspiration for approaching, encouraging, and supporting your loved one.
I didn’t need to hear: “You (we) will not let this happen again.”
This one has been said to me when I was hospitalized for suicidal ideation. I can see where this statement could come from a good place. No one wants someone they love to struggle with those kinds of thoughts and that kind of pain. It’s painful for everyone involved, not just the hospitalized person. And we need to do everything we can to help someone get the help and support they need, so they won’t be in such a dark place again.
But at the time…. this statement made me feel guilt, shame, and pressure. What if I couldn’t pull it together?
The truth is… I did let it happen again. I was hospitalized again. And again. And every time I wondered - is this the time I’ll be abandoned? Is this the time they’ll realize I’m not worth sticking around for? Is this the time that they will have had enough of the spill-over of my pain and decide I’m a lost cause?
What I would have wanted to hear instead - “We aren’t ever going to give up on you.”
I have come to accept that, for me the struggle with mental health will always be a part of my life. I work hard to stay stable, using my coping skills, taking my meds, going to therapy, and all the things. But even when I do all those things, sometimes I …still…struggle.
This phrase is more helpful for me. It reminds me that no matter how many bad days, anxiety attacks, depressive episodes, or even hospitalizations I have - my loved one will be there for me.
(Also, even if you think your loved one knows this- reminders always help me. When the darkness is there, sometimes it’s easy to question everything and start to worry about losing the support of a loved one. So even if you think they know- you can still remind them. You should remind them!)
What I didn’t need to hear - “Everything happens for a reason.”
This phrase has been repeated so many times I could have lost count in high school. I come from a religious background, and it seems to be the catchphrase to say whenever someone is going through something hard, or that doesn’t have any easy answer. I’ve learned to shrug it off most of the time. I think the people who have said it to me genuinely believe that there is a reason for everything.
And maybe there is.
But in the moment - in the hard - it doesn’t help. It hurts. Because I can’t see the reason. Even on the good days, the so-named reason is elusive to me. Maybe this phrase helps the person who says it feel better, but it has never comforted or supported me in my pain. It makes me feel like I’m missing something. Like I’m even more alone.
What I would have wanted to hear instead - “I don’t know why you’re going through this, but it doesn’t make you weak or damaged goods.”
For me, there isn’t an easy answer to my struggles. It’s not as simple as brain chemistry. It’s not as simple as trauma. It’s not as simple as hormones. There isn’t one simple explanation. And for most people I’ve met with mental illness, it isn’t one thing. So, for someone to recognize that it’s complicated - that it doesn’t always make sense AND that I’m no less valuable because my struggles aren’t easy or quick to be solved.
I might never get a simple answer to - solve- the puzzle… but with people who care to stand by my side and support me…. that’s what helps.
What I didn’t need to hear - “I know how you’re feeling.”
This one makes me a little angry. Okay - a lot angry. Again, this phrase might make the speaker feel like they’re helping, but it just made me feel like I should stop talking, stop sharing, and go with whatever the other person was assuming I SHOULD be feeling.
Instead, I would have wanted to hear, “I want to be here for you and help however I can; can you explain how you’re feeling and what I can do to help?”
This is one of the best things that could be said to me when I’m struggling! It shows me that the person is willing to listen. It shows me that they want to understand what is happening from my point of view. A person who says this demonstrates that they know that the struggle, the feelings, and the pain that I am facing are unique to me. They can’t just ask the doctor for a label and “know” what I’m going through.
And then the second part…. “And what I can do to help.” Words are SO important. They are important to me. But actions also speak volumes. But what sort of actions can a loved one take to support someone who is struggling with their mental health? That, my friend, is a whole new topic, and I’d love to share my ideas for that too - so look for my next piece about what to DO to support a loved one struggling with their mental health.
Whatever you say in these situations - two things have been the most important to me:
· Words of unconditional support. (Try starting with - I’m not going to give up on you) Friends have left me behind throughout my journey of recovery and relapse. I don’t know what their reasons were. Maybe they were overwhelmed? Perhaps they were struggling themselves? Perhaps they, too, didn’t know what to say…. Losing connection and communication with friends or loved ones because of your mental health - hurts. It really hurts. So, whenever we can, we need to remind people that we love and care for them when they’re doing well and when they’re struggling. We won’t leave them.
· Active Listening (Try listening to what the individual describes and ask gentle follow-up questions to show you want to understand - but remember not to be pushy) Part of my healing over the years has been the room to share what my experience with mental illness looks and feels like. Yes, I can do that in therapy, but it’s even more healing when I can do it with my people in my everyday life.
o When someone doesn’t assume what I’m feeling - I feel supported.
o When someone isn’t afraid to hear the hard parts - I feel supported.
o When someone asks gentle follow-up questions because they want to truly understand what I’m expressing - I feel supported.
o So remember this! - even when you don’t know what to say…. listening always helps!!
Finally, a few other things that I’ve heard that are unhelpful to say but that I won’t go over in detail here:
· “But it could have been worse” or any statement or suggestion of this kind. Remember, everyone’s trauma is valid.
· “If you just tried……”. Sometimes suggestions do help, but sometimes they’re just overwhelming and shaming.
· “Let it go”. This hurts- for me, this phrase seems like someone is telling me that I’m trying to be in pain or have this mental illness on purpose.
· “You can do this without medication! You are strong!” There are so many things wrong with this one. A) Sometimes, people need medication and an untrained individual has no right to advise about this. B) taking medication doesn’t make someone weak.
If you love someone who is struggling with their mental health, remember to be kind and gentle.
Thanks for listening to this one! Look for another piece written by me (Shayne) about some things a loved one can actively DO to support someone through a mental health battle.
Check out the recording on our Podcast -