How To Treat Someone With Mental Illness

There is this notion that people with mental illnesses are weak. I know this, because I have Panic Disorder and PTSD and I am told that I, or people like me, are weak. The first time that I was called this, it broke me. The last time, it put a spark in me that I am not sure I would have gotten any other way.

I have spoken on here, many times, about my anxiety and the stigmas of mental illness. To be able to talk about them is therapeutic for me. It is empowering. For so long I had this notion that I always had to be perfect. I was in this bubble, and I was afraid to venture out of it, for fear of being less than. Yet, inside my mind, I knew I was less than. I knew there was something different about me. “Normal” people didn’t worry about things the way that I did. I wouldn’t talk about it to anyone. Not for the longest time. The first person I ever truly opened up to about it, was my boyfriend, now husband.

The way that he reacted made me realize that I could have this anxiety, and still be “perfect”. I opened up to more people, and I wish I could say that everyone has been supportive. But, I can’t. Most everyone is supportive. Or, at least, more supportive than not. There are a few though, who will put a jab in, anytime they can. I honestly don’t think the speaker realizes the impacts of their words. Or, at least, I hope they don’t. I would gate to think that people who are in my tribe would intentionally hurt me. Therefore, I am creating a “how to guide” for dealing with someone who has mental illnesses.

  1. DO NOT, under any circumstances, use phrases such as “It’s all in your head” or “You have got to get over it”.       

Here’s why: We know it’s in our heads. We know that it’s not normal. However, it’s also in our body, our heart, and anywhere else that we feel the symptoms. The overwhelming feeling of ice in our veins is very much not only in our heads. People with mental illnesses are like this because of a chemical imbalance in their brains. It’s been proven. That’s why medicines that are used to change these imbalances are effective. Telling someone to get over mental illness is like telling someone “to get over diabetes” or “it’s all in your pancreas.” There is not a person alive with mental illness who does not wish they could “get over it”.

2. Don’t name call.

I am surprised I even have to say this, yet I do. We should have been taught since kids that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. We should have been taught that bullying is wrong, and calling people names is a form of bullying. When I taught in the public school system I always taught the same lesson. Every year. I would have the kids find a scar on their body. I would have them share with a partner how they got that scar. I would tell them to poke it. We talked about how it no longer hurt, it had healed. Then, I had them think of something mean someone had said to them before. We talked about the icky way it made us feel, all this time later. We then drew self portraits and had to write kind words about each other on the self portrait.

Using words such as “crazy” or “nuts” are hurtful. Again, we know that we are different. We get that our brains are wired different. Yet, we would never refer to someone who has a different ailment, such as heart disease, as being “weird”. Using these kinds of words to describe someone with mental illness only makes it worse. A lot worse.

3. Don’t call us weak.

True story: There was a time that I couldn’t get in a car, as a passenger, and ride two minutes down the road without having a panic attack. I worked hard every day, forcing myself to do it. Forcing myself to do better than the day before. This isn’t weak. This is being determined, and being strong. It is fighting. There are days I would fail. This isn’t weak. I once read a quote that said “Strength doesn’t come from what we can do. It comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t.”

None of us know the battles that another person faces. We do not know the demons that they are facing. Just because someone is struggling, doesn’t mean they are weak. They have more strength than you could ever imagine, because they are having to work harder than ever to do the things that others take for granted.

4. Don’t assume you know how they feel.

I am guilty of this myself. If someone discloses that they have anxiety, I will say “I know how you feel.” Truthfully, I don’t. I don’t how their anxiety feels to them. I don’t know how severe their panic attacks are. I know what mine is like. There are times that mine are tolerable, and times that mine are the worse fear I have ever had in my life. Crippling fear. Just because you have had panic attacks does not mean you know what mine are like. Just because you were able to get over yours quickly, doesn’t mean that I can. Which does not mean I am weak. It means that ours are different. Just like our bodies are different.

5. PTSD isn’t just for those people who have served in the military.

PTSD stands for “post-traumatic stress disorder”. Any trauma can cause it. Trauma being a “deeply distressing or disturbing situation”. Here are examples of trauma: a car wreck, a shooting, a natural disaster, a death of a loved one, an assault, divorce, serious illness, moving, etc.

Trauma affects the brain in ways I can’t even begin to explain. All of us experiences trauma, but not everyone has the kind of reaction that causes PTSD. I had lost loved ones before, but the trauma of losing my dad was unbearable. My brain, in an effort to protect me, shut down. I have no recollection of certain moments afterward. I remember holding his hand, and telling him I loved him. Then, I remember collapsing on a sidewalk walk. The in-between is gone. I only know what others have told me. While this isn’t the only traumatic event that has helped to cause my PTSD diagnosis, it is a significant one.

An article from Psych Central, found here, explains PTSD in ways that I never could. This article discusses the categories of PTSD in this way “The four categories of PTSD symptoms include: intrusive thoughts (unwanted memories); mood alterations (shame, blame, persistent negativity); hypervigilance (exaggerated startle response); and avoidance (of all sensory and emotional trauma-related material). These cause confusing symptoms for survivors who don’t understand how they’ve suddenly become so out of control in their own minds and bodies.”

I have all of this. Avoidance being the biggest one. About a year and a half after my dad died, my uncle died. He had no children, and I was like his daughter. I stayed in the room holding his hand until it became apparent that it was time. I left the room, and my mom stayed. I couldn’t be in the room because I was afraid I would react like I did with my dad. This affects how I am in other medical situations. While I have gotten better, there are times that I am still lacking. When the kids get hurt, my husband has to go to them first. I freeze for about 5 seconds, and then my brain kicks in.

6. The best way to help is to show support.

We aren’t asking that you hold our hand and baby us. We are asking that you show us respect. Don’t belittle us. Tell us you love us. Ask us how you can help. Hug us. Pray for us. Treat mental illness with kindness, just like you would any other illness.

There are so many other things I could say on this topic, and may in the future. Our world has lost the ability to be kind to people who are different from us. I hope this helps us treat people with mental illnesses with a little more compassion.

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