Life with a mental illness is frequently challenging. This can be exacerbated by the words, actions, and attitudes of the world around us. Simply put, the world is not a mental illness friendly place. Some of the patterns that make it so are so pervasive that even those of us coping with mental illness engage in them So today we’re talking about some things we can do to make our world a bit more mental illness friendly. Let me be clear, this isn’t about coddling folks with mental illnesses, this is about small adjustments that can make space for people to exist with mental illnesses without feeling stigmatized and for the people around them to be better able to navigate that. Frankly, I think a lot of this stuff would just be helpful for all people in general. Okay, here goes:
6 Ways To Make Your World More Mental Illness Friendly
Don’t use diagnoses as slurs or punchlines
This is pretty easy. Stop using mental health diagnoses in the context of anything other than mental health diagnoses. We’ve talked before about why using the whole “crazy” family of insults sucks and today I want to close up a loophole folks seem to be exploiting to get around that so I’m including armchair “diagnosing” here. Have you ever noticed people don’t take to social media to speculate about the mental health statuses of people they like and respect? However, these days, knowing people will get mad if they say that the strange guy living in the White House is “bat-shit crazy” a lot of folks are suddenly walking DSM-Vs able to rattle off specific diagnoses and justify it with “What? I’m concerned. I really think he might have NPD/Bipolar/Kleptomania/this other thing I just found out exists” Stop doing this. This is, in a way, worse than old school “he’s crazy” because you are taking specific diagnoses that people around you may be living with and applying them to people whose actions you don’t like- because, again, it’s never the likable people who we have these conversations about.
Check your assumptions about laziness
Last year I talked about how it broke my heart to hear a close friend say they believed “writer’s block” was an excuse people used when they didn’t want to try while I was shoulders-deep in an episode that left me feeling physically and mentally unable to produce any written content for the better part of a year (seriously, I felt like the words were floating around my brain somewhere and I just couldn’t get them out!). As a decade-long depressionista (thank you twitter followers for giving me that term), I have faced down a lot of assumptions about my debilitating symptoms being just an excuse to lay on my couch and rewatch Grey’s Anatomy again. Let’s clear this up: The people in your life who are struggling with mental health issues have hopes, dreams, goals and aspirations just like anyone else – no one sets out to see how much time they can spend paralyzed by their own mind. Don’t decide that everything that doesn’t look like work as you know it is laziness.
…we all have different physical, intellectual, and emotional capacities and that means we all have different things we can and can’t do – and that’s okay.
Take this further: There’s a meme that makes the rounds every couple of months, it originally implied that men with beards who couldn’t chop wood were stupid, then someone “fixed” it to read that everyone should be able to chop wood, fix cars, throw grizzly bears, and whatever other useful skills this person decided we should all have. Whenever it gets shared on my FB feed a ton of folks flock to effuse about how they CAN do all of the things and, yes, everyone SHOULD do all of the things but here’s the what – not everyone CAN do all the things. Not because they are too hipster/lazy/not cool to learn but because we all have different physical, intellectual, and emotional capacities and that means we all have different things we can and can’t do – and that’s okay. We can’t declare folks lazy for not being able to do stuff no matter how useful it is because we don’t know where they are coming from – yes, even a friend who we perceive as being of sound mind and body- you don’t know.
Stop glorifying busyness
I can’t speak for all mental illnesses but I know depression simultaneously frees up a bunch of time and fills your calendar. How so? Well all of the crippling self-doubt and panic leaves very little time for much else however it doesn’t really look like a lot on paper. I find that one of the hardest parts of engaging with others when I’m experiencing a depressive episode is listening to folks out-busy each other while I sink deeper and deeper into a pit of inadequacy because so much of my energy has been focused on remembering to breathe in and out.
By all means, live your life and if your life is frequently busy then that’s your business but please stop participating in the cult of busy and buying into the notion that the person with the most packed calendar wins. Whether it’s announcing that all your weekends are booked up for the next 3 months (in any context other than “let’s make weekend plans, when are you free?”) or casually slipping into conversation that you always work 90 hour weeks (unless your employer is abusing your time, please tell people about that) the “look at how big my busy is” boasting has to stop. Not only is it obnoxious but it sends the message that “not constantly busy” = loser/failure/lazy/etc. This is detrimental to so many folks (it took me until my mid 30s to get okay with how often I want to stay in) but for folks with mental illnesses it furthers the “you are broken and failing” narrative. Just stop.
Check in when people screw up
That friend who is suddenly flaking on plans, that work colleague who has dropped the ball on a couple of projects, the family member who can’t seem to do anything right lately- reach out to those folks. Often we perceive these behaviors as “failing” and letting us down, we think people are willfully not doing what is being asked of them and wonder why they refuse to pull their weight, these people annoy us, make our lives harder than they need to be and generally piss us off. Here’s the thing though, I know for me depressive episodes come with a general air of fail. I become forgetful and easily confused, everything takes herculean effort, and even when I think I’m paying attention to detail I get shit very, very wrong. I miss deadlines, feel awful, start dodging emails, hiding, missing more things I was supposed to be doing, hating myself, and generally making things worse. All the while people are getting angrier and more frustrated with me and when they finally get ahold of me there’s a lecture about how I’ve let them down, caused them stress, etc. Which, for me makes everything worse, causing me to hide from people so as to avoid the lecture in the future. I shudder to think about the ridiculously unfair distribution of labor between me and anyone who tries to work with me on projects during an episode.
These days I try to be up front with people so they know what’s going on and we can all be on the same page but not everyone is there yet. So, when you see someone in your life start to go down the “screw up” slope, instead of painting them with the failure brush, check in. See how they’re doing. They may be drowning and in need of a lifeline. Just the act of letting them know that you see and hear them and support them where they are at is huge for someone who has been doing the normal dance as fast as they can and in the process dropping all the balls all over the place.
Be aware of how much you ask of others
Notice how much you ask of others and how you ask for it. This one is tricky because I do believe we should be able to lean on each other and ask for support and as someone who came from an “avoid being a burden at all costs” background I know how problematic it can be when you try desperately to not ask for anything ever. That said, it never ceases to amaze me that I will be openly in a depressive episode and people will maintain a steady stream of requests and demands – each one ratcheting up the stress and making me want to shut down my email account and run away forever.
When someone is coping with mental illness they are not only hearing what you are actually saying but, very likely, a lot of other stuff… “You aren’t doing enough”, “I’m angry at you”, “My needs are more important than yours”.
Mental illness lies to us and makes us see and hear things differently than they actually are. When someone is coping with mental illness they are not only hearing what you are actually saying but, very likely, a lot of other stuff that you never meant along with it. “You aren’t doing enough”, “I’m angry at you”, “My needs are more important than yours”.
There’s no way you can know what’s going on in someone’s head but also, you never know what’s going on in someone’s head, you know? We tend to assume the default setting for humans is “doing awesome and ready for anything we throw at them!” and I’m not sure I think that’s fair to assume of anyone ever. Generally I’m opposed to pelting people (any people) with requests anyway but when put in the context of “you never know what someone is coping with” that seems especially relevant. Consider the digest approach, with everything in one message. Suddenly your requests are one friendly message with a clear purpose rather than a non-stop barrage of emails that one must wade through to figure out all the (seemingly many) things you want. Or, do like my best friend does and check in to ask if people have the spoons for what you want from them right then or if it should wait.
Finally, when you know someone is struggling and you want something from them that is not urgent or work-related I suggest (and I know this may be controversial) backing the hell off. For example, any request that opens with “remember a while back you said…” is probably best saved for another time.
Be OK with people being not OK
We, as a people don’t leave a lot of space for people to experience unpleasant feelings. We encourage positivity, fun, and smiles. We label sadness, anger, shame, and their friends as TMI, downers or something folks “probably don’t want to talk about, right?”. We don’t leave space for being not OK to just be normal. The only acceptable answers to “How are you?” are synonyms for good – even “fine” will get you hit with a barrage of questions about why you aren’t more chipper – not what support you need but why are you bringing down the room.
Give friends the room to express when they are not OK and make it safe for them to ask for what they need. Remember that they may not need anything at that particular moment- they may just stay not OK for a bit, it needn’t be a race to fix the “problem”. I always say that I’ve been through two bouts of crippling injury: one where I lived alone and one where I lived with a partner and, to the surprise of many, the one where I lived with a partner was WAY harder. Why? Because I had to deal with how he wanted me to feel/act/be. Living alone I got to be where I was when I was there. Consequently, I actually felt pretty OK mentally while I was injured alone but sank into a depression so bad I needed my mother to come stay with me when I was injured with a partner. It all came down to it being OK to not be OK.
Let people be where they are. If they want to use humor to cope with their situation, let them! Don’t respond to their jokes with the sympathetic head tilt. As long as they are safe understand that they may not be “good”, “OK”, or “fine” but they are where they are and they get to be there. Avoid the barrage of “are you okay?” and “how are you?” that can make people want to peel their skin off in frustration (hint: when someone is constantly wrestling with a mental state they don’t like or understand the odds that they want to frequently explain it to you are not good.) If you are looking for a way to help, try asking “How can I support you?” This one question creates options rather than backing your friend into a “I don’t know…pressure, pressure, pressure!” corner. They might not have an answer but they know you are there – which is usually what people want to express with those other questions but often not what they sound like.
So, there we are folks, 6 ways you can make your life a bit more mental illness friendly that, when you really look at them, are just about being compassionate, considerate, and kind. I think that’s something that everyone could appreciate.