Mental illness can be isolating, terrifying, and debilitating. Much has been done by charities, campaigners, and sufferers to try and tackle the problem of stigma. It is testament to their tireless work that the issues around mental health are now front and centre in the public consciousness, but if stigma is really going to be tackled, it has to start with us, and the people we interact with on a daily basis.
People who suffer from mental ill health don’t expect people to fully understand what is going on, but their experience of it might just be slightly less lonely and traumatic, if only people knew how they wanted to be treated when they are in that dark place.
We asked some sufferers to kindly tell us their thoughts on how they want to be treated when they are ill, and what they want others to understand about their illness.
When I’m ill, this is what I want to you to know
Everyone’s experience of mental illness is different, but some common themes emerged when people told us how they wanted to be treated when they were in the grip of their illness;
‘I’M STILL ME’
Underneath it all, someone suffering from a mental health problem is still the same person they were. This is what they want you to understand:
‘I would like people not to forget about me, not to be scared or put off about my thoughts or behaviours. To try and remember who I really am and that this is a phase and shall pass, it always does. That I’m not attention seeking, that I just need them to understand and maybe ask how I am with the genuine intent and desire to hear the answer. Not to try and fix me but just be there and understand’
‘To realise that I am not defined by my illness, I am a person. To not dismiss parts of my character you find challenging as being because of my illness; to challenge me if appropriate, not (metaphorically), pat my head, say ‘poor boy’ and change the subject’
‘I want to feel that it’s OK to be me’
‘I’M NOT CRAZY’
Just because someone has a mental health problem, don’t dismiss their every feeling or thought as illogical.
‘To not interpret all of my behaviours as symptoms of my mental disorders, or just stamp the ‘you’re crazy’ logo on my head when they don’t understand. To appreciate that sometimes I just need to be left alone to process what I’m feeling’
‘JUST BE THERE FOR ME’
Mental illness can be so isolating, and even if someone feels like they want to be alone, knowing that there is someone on the other end of the phone to listen means more than you will ever know.
‘I want my close friends, whom I trust enough to tell about my feelings, to just be there. Literally. Be there, hold me, hug me, let me cry and just listen. I want to feel worthy and validated. And I’d like them to ask everything they want to understand’
‘Just make contact, that’s the main thing.’
‘Understanding, empathy and hugs please.’
‘I just want to feel loved. And companionship. You are there to hold me up for a little while when I’m weak and broken. Then let me be strong again. And still love me.’
‘It depends. It’s not always the same. So ask me what I need. And don’t believe me when I tell you to go away.’
‘Let me know that you believe that I am worthwhile. Let me know that I’m not alone. If you don’t understand, how or why I hurt, that’s okay, just say so. Ask me what I need, I may not know, or may not be able to tell you, but asking shows that you care.’
‘When in a dark place I tend to withdraw from everything and go into hibernation mode, wanting to be left alone, yet wanting company, yet company leaves me scratching to get away. So just letting me know they’re there for me is probably all anyone could do, and that fellow sufferers understand.’
‘Don’t offer solutions, just use your ears.’
‘You don’t need to say anything if you’re scared you’ll make things worse or you don’t know what to say; just sit with me, hug me, listen, let me dry my tears on your jumper, hold my hand, make me feel safe and make me realise I’m not alone in that moment.’
‘DON’T DISMISS MY FEELINGS’
People suffering from mental illness don’t need to be told to ‘get over it’, but they do need to be told that they are not weak, unlovable, or a bad person.
‘To not dismiss or feed the negative feelings but to accept that they are what I am feeling and let me know that’s ok, whilst also gently reminding me that what I’m feeling is not reflective of what people think about me. Let me explain if I can, but accept that sometimes it takes me a while to understand it myself. Genuinely be there without expectations.’
Don’t’ be afraid to ask ‘how are you?’
Mental health can be terrifying and confusing, not only for sufferers, but for those around them. But whether it’s a friend, family member, or colleague who is suffering, no one is helpless. You can be that person who calls, texts, or asks them to go for coffee. You can ask ‘how are you?’. You can listen without judgement. You can simply be there. And this helps more than you know.
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