Don’t ever label mental health difficulties as a personal flaw. If someone is in clear distress, crying hysterically and yelling, it is not because they are an ‘attention-seeker’ or a ‘drama queen’. When I suffered from depression, I described it as being trapped in an invisible tank: it was a place where it’s horribly cold and dark, where I would struggle to stay above water. When my anxiety attacks would hit, it was as though I was suddenly in a massive stormy sea, with sharks chasing after me. The sharks were the loud, angry, yelling voices in my head, telling me that I’m pathetic, worthless and create an awful existence for my friends and family members; unloved, unworthy and an absolute ‘nothing’ of a person. It could be different at times, where if I managed to enter a room of people then I could probably not stay longer than a few minutes, thinking that no one wanted me there, and that they would resent me. The last thing I wanted to do was to create drama, or have everyone looking at me.
Do validate what they are feeling. I think that this the most important thing to do for anyone experiencing mental distress. There is nothing worse than, when feeling absolutely awful, to be told to ‘cheer up’, ‘your problems aren’t that bad’ etc. Mental illness is not logical: what you or I may equate a life to be grateful for, can be very difficult to appreciate sometimes. Someone can seem to have it great, with loads of friends, great looks and grades, but for all you know they’ve suffered losses, trauma, been abused or bullied, or struggle with the pressure to keep up their supposedly ‘perfect’ life. In other cases, someone suffers from mental illness because it runs in their family. Others will suffer from the same difficulties simply because there is a chemical imbalance in their brain. Mental illness is the same regardless of what caused it, and it simply cannot be dismissed.
Do be there. When a terrible mood comes it isn’t easy to rid yourself of it; mental illness is incredibly isolating, which makes it even worse to suffer through. It’s actually quite common for people to feel awkward, not knowing what to do or say and end up avoiding the sufferer altogether, but I’d really advise against avoidance. Of course, this will depend on the person experiencing mental ill-health, as some people just prefer to be left alone, while others might need the company. Being avoided because you’re having a rough time with your illness can cause a well-intended message to be misinterpreted.
Don’t criticise them. A mental illness can be as disabling as any physical illness. Staying in bed, staring at the ceiling for hours on end because your mind is feeling utterly crap is a very normal thing. There may seem to be simple solutions, but very often these ‘simple solutions’ are actually what a mental health difficulty can prevent you from doing.
I’ve often tried to describe how depression can feel: it is something similar to the pain of your worst break up, reminiscent of the death of a loved one, or the worst you’ve ever felt about yourself. Truth be told it is a feeling most are lucky to never have felt, a pain that varies from mild to extreme and is incomparable to anything else. It causes things you may once have enjoyed, such as watching tv or eating, to feel incredibly pointless and as mundane as everything else in life, so horribly and unbearably so that you would rather simply lie in bed all day. It exhausts you, causing simple tasks like getting dressed or eating a proper meal to require enormous effort. I’ve heard things like “go fix yourself!” once or twice, but believe me: it won’t do anything but cause the sufferer to feel even more guilt & self-disgust than what they are already feeling. Some sufferers will gain weight, and might stop making an effort with their appearance altogether. If this happens, criticising them will only worsen their mood and self-esteem: from their point of view, what could be an easy thing for you to do could be equivalent to mastering Everest.
Do look after yourself. We all love our friends, and want to help them as much as we can, but do not overload yourself. It is very important for your loved one to be under the supervision of a trained professional when suffering from mental illness, as there are certain responsibilities that you just cannot take on, no matter who the person is to you. If you suspect someone you know is experiencing mental health difficulties, is it very important to voice your concerns and urge them to receive help. An appointment with the Student Health Clinic should get them on their way to recovery.
If your friend or loved one isn’t a student, or if their situation may be more immediate than the appointment backlog of the Health Centre will allow, there are alternative supports out there. Pieta House offers counselling sessions and support, and their website (Pieta.ie) has information about how to help a friend who is suicidal or self-harming. It is important to note that if you feel a friend is in immediate risk of committing suicide, then it is generally advised that you contact emergency services immediately, even if they have yet to act or do anything. If you or your friend just needs to talk to someone, Samaritans are there to help; their 24hr free-call line is available to all who need it, and can be utilised by calling 116 123.
If you’ve been affected by any of the content in this article, you can contact the Students’ Union Welfare Officer Rory on 086 383 6794, or the Samaritans on 116 123.