When I look back on the person I was in college — during the worst period of my depression — I am honestly amazed that I still have so many friends who knew me back then. I spent most of my time in the computer lab talking to folks online, and barely had enough energy to eat, sleep or bathe. Everything I talked about centered around how awful life was, how insurmountable my problems were, how much of a failure I had been. When folks were kind enough to apologize when they offended my hypersensitive emotions, they were treated to small passive-aggressive jabs instead of gratitude. It was awful. I was awful. And it makes me so grateful that there were people who stuck with me through all of it.
I try to take that knowledge with me whenever I’m dealing with someone in the throes of depression or anxiety, because I know how much it helped to have people who never gave up on me even when I wasn’t capable of showing my appreciation at the time. They made one of the worst times of my life a little more bearable, and I know now that it was at considerable expense on their part. The energy and patience required to deal with me when I was in my worst depressions are more than I could ever expect from anyone, even close friends. But those people who spent it on me are people I would do anything for now.
There is no shortage of people in geek spaces suffering from depression, anxiety, or another mental illness; supporting us can be very difficult, especially if you can only do so online. It can feel so inadequate to put encouraging words on a screen when someone tells you that they just want to die, and it’s really hard to be sure you understand what they’re going through when they bring up a problem. And, quite honestly, it’s a rough deal to spend so much time and energy consoling someone when you’re online to gain some measure of relief from the world yourself — especially if it feels like all of that time and energy is being sucked into an emotional void with no measurable improvement. Still, most of us are good people who don’t want to see our friends and fellow fans suffer, so we do what we can to ease the misery where we can.
With that in mind, what can we do to make sure we’re helping friends who are having a hard time coping with mental illness? There are a few things I can recommend from my personal experience on either side of that conversation, combined with suggestions from professionals and mental health advocates. I can’t guarantee that your friend will be cured if you follow this advice, of course, or that it will even result in a marked improvement. I do think that they will help you understand what your friend might be going through and offer the best assistance you can.
Listen actively. It takes work to be a good listener. Most of us only practice what I call “surface listening”, where we pick up the generalities of what’s being said while planning the next thing we’re going to say. Deep listening, the kind where you not only hear what’s being said but work to understand the intent behind what’s being said, is both more rare and more difficult. However, for those of us stuck in a bad headspace, it can mean a lot for someone to understand what we don’t have the vocabulary or insight to say.
When I’m in a bad depression, it’s hard to open up about what I really feel. Sometimes I don’t even know what that is, so I end up talking around the problem or trying to get to the precise feeling from different angles. It can be frustrating to have this strong emotion roiling inside of you without the means to express it, only to have a conversation that leads you further away from it with someone else.
I know this sounds like depressed people might expect you to be a mind-reader, which isn’t fair. But you don’t have to be — sometimes, all it takes is really listening to what someone is saying to understand what they mean. Active listening is difficult, and like any skill it takes practice to get good at it, but it reaps dividends not just for helping a depressed friend but for pretty much any other conversation you could have.
Offer support, not solutions. This is a bad habit of mine that I’m constantly trying to curb, but when someone comes to me with a problem my brain immediately kicks over into “solution mode” where I try to attack the problem with the person who brought it to my attention. This often just causes that person to be frustrated and frequently dismiss my suggestions for one reason or another. This frustrates me because I’m too deep into “solution mode” to get what’s happening there. If this person didn’t want my help solving their problem, why did they even come to me in the first place?
The kicker here is that I’ve been on the other side of this conversation, and I know how frustrating it is to bring a problem to someone only to have them immediately go into a list of solution suggestions. It’s so strange to me that it’s so easy to be disappointed in someone for doing the same thing I do all the time when the roles are reversed; if nothing else, it’s proof that we’re just not the rational creatures we think we are.
This might not be true all the time, but for a significant portion of the cases I bring a problem to someone I’m just looking for a safe space to vent — especially in the grips of a depression. It’s comforting to have someone else offer support and understanding, to acknowledge a problem you’re having as difficult to deal with. Sometimes, it helps to know that someone cares about you and that they’re on your side.
Know your boundaries. Having a friend with a mental illness lean on you heavily for emotional support can be exhausting. It’s all right to acknowledge that. Sometimes, we just don’t have it within us to be the outlet for someone going through a tough time — while that can be a difficult realization if you feel partially responsible for someone’s well-being, it’s also important to recognize when you’re getting burned out and unable to cope with the workload.
Having a firm handle on what you can and can’t handle is important for your own emotional well-being, and when you’re getting close to your limit you have to step back to preserve your own peace of mind. It’s noble to want to be right there in the thick of things with your friend, but compromising your own emotional health for the sake of someone else doesn’t solve their problem; it only creates more to be dealt with. If you need to take some time to recharge, tell your friend as kindly and compassionately as possible, and let them know that you’ll be available some time later.
If possible, it might help to find a support group online or in person to join. This can help you learn how to cope with caring for someone better, and that you’re not alone. There might be other resources you can share with your friend or a common support network, as well.
Encourage treatment. Most of us with friends who are dealing with a mental illness aren’t equipped to handle helping them on our own. Part of knowing our own boundaries is knowing when we’re in over our heads and professional help is needed; we wouldn’t offer a diagnosis or treatment for someone with a mysterious pain in their chest, so we shouldn’t do that for mental illness either.
Recommending a visit to the psychiatrist can be a tricky subject. Even if someone has health insurance, there’s no guarantee that mental health services are easily available. Besides the resistance to seeking treatment to begin with, there might be legitimate social, logistical or financial barriers to getting the care they need. Those of us in a bad spiral might see going to a therapist as a defeat, or be reluctant about sharing intimate and painful details of our lives with a stranger. Sometimes, though, it’s the best option we have for getting help.
If you feel your friend needs to see a mental health specialist, see if there’s a low-cost or no-cost resource available and what (if anything) would need to be done in order to take advantage of it. If they’re in a position where they can see a specialist with relative ease, talk with them about their reluctance to do so and see if that can be worked through. While treatment for a mental illness can be a long process that requires patience and trust, it’s worth sticking with. Helping a friend seek the help they need might be the best thing we can do to support them.
Discourage abuse. One big hazard of being emotional support for someone is the very real possibility of being subjected to abusive or manipulative behavior. I’ve known a number of people who feel that their mental illness is a valid excuse for treating the people around them poorly, and far too often the people in their support network enable that behavior by letting it slide. It breaks my heart to see this. No one deserves to be verbally or emotionally abused, and mental illness is no excuse for being an asshole. Letting this go unaddressed hurts everyone involved.
If a friend is engaging in inappropriate or manipulative behavior, it’s our duty as their support to let them know they’re crossing a line — especially if it’s with us. It can be very difficult to do so in a compassionate way, and it may take some delicate handling to do so, but it’s worth it every time. It helps to make sure the behavior is addressed as separate from the individual (“you did a bad thing,” not “you’re being a bad person” for example) so the person doesn’t internalize the action to the point that it’s a part of their identity. And it might help to remember that the behavior needs to be addressed in order to truly help your friend; keeping the goal of the conversation in mind might work to keep it from derailing.
Most importantly, it makes sure that you maintain your equanimity as that friend’s support. Some of us have a tendency to make other people see the world in the same skewed ways we do when we’re depressed. Sometimes we’re driven to these actions by the irrational fear that controlling someone else’s behavior or lowering their self-esteem is the only way we can keep them associating with us. Making sure it’s known that behavior won’t be tolerated AND that the relationship is one built on positive shared values (and not fear or control) provides a clear counter-narrative to that internal monologue, and might help that friend come around a bit sooner than they would otherwise.
Even then, if the abusive behavior continues or a line is crossed that makes the relationship untenable, it’s important to establish your boundary and make it clear there are consequences for those actions. If that means ending the relationship, as difficult as that is, then the relationship must end. Supporting someone else should not come at the cost of your own emotional health. Only give what you’re willing to part with, and make sure your loving relationship with yourself remains intact.
I hope these suggestions help, and offer some small insight into the difficulties of emotional support. I’d also like to take this time to thank all the people who’ve helped me through the worst times of my life, from the bottom of my heart. I wouldn’t be where I am without your continued faith and support, even when I really didn’t deserve it. Thank you Ryan, Kyle, Odis, Brian, Matt, Mat, Cy, Sherri, Crystal, Virginia, Joe, Kaycee, and so, so many others. I think about all of you all the time, and I appreciate all you’ve done.