It’s no secret that mental illness is on the rise in America.
Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and PTSD are common (and, thankfully, destigmatized) topics today. But despite the increased awareness around this topic, nothing prepares you for dealing with a loved one in the grips of mental illness. You want to support them, but you don’t know how. Why not? Because you can’t truly understand what their life (and their suffering) is really like. That’s why Dr. Mark Goulston wants you to step into the shoes of a person suffering from mental illness.
“When someone in your life has a mental illness, it can be a real challenge to relate to their struggles—especially if you have never suffered from something similar yourself,” says Dr. Goulston, suicide prevention expert, hostage negotiation trainer, and co-creator and moderator of Stay Alive, a new 75-minute video/podcast documentary, available here on YouTube, serving at-risk populations and featuring suicide survivor Kevin Hines and suicide prevention advocate Rayko. (#StayAliveNow) “It’s even harder to understand how to help them, no matter how much you wish you could.”
Those coping with mental illness often feel misunderstood and isolated, on top of the hopelessness they already feel. Under the wrong circumstances, this despair could be truly dangerous—especially for someone who has displayed tendencies toward self-harm or is at risk for developing self-destructive behavior. Teenagers are among those at greatest risk. Teen deaths by suicide are on the rise, and suicide is now the second-leading cause of death after accidents.
“We created Stay Alive to show at-risk teens and adults they are not alone and to help them find their way out of despair,” says Dr. Goulston. “Suicide prevention isn’t just about helping the person who is afflicted. To really move the needle toward saving lives, we need to remove the societal stigma surrounding suicide.”
Goulston explains that this process begins with helping the people who care about at-risk individuals gain understanding and offer support. The next step is helping society recognize the true struggles of those at risk. Misunderstanding and judgment only further isolate a person who is suicidal. Instead, it’s time for more compassion. When everyone understands how much suffering is really going on, we have a real chance to reach out and save lives.
If someone you love—of any age—is struggling, one of the most powerful ways you can help them is by trying to understand the truth about living with mental illness. Your empathy could save a life. Dr. Goulston wants you to imagine that person with depression or another mental illness is standing in front of you. Here is what they want you to know:
“First, understand that my mental illness is real.”
My mental illness is not a character flaw, or a perpetual bad mood, or a convenient excuse to stay in bed all day. Depression, anxiety, and the like are well-documented clinical conditions, and the people experiencing them need support.
“Just because I look happy doesn’t mean that I am.”
I don’t always tell you how I truly feel because I don’t like burdening you. Plus, many people who suffer from depression are able to function in daily life. We often look fine on the surface, even though we are suffering tremendously on the inside.
“Depression can fill even the most talented/smart/beautiful people with self-loathing.”
Depression doesn’t spare the rich, beautiful, or powerful. Sometimes, the very people who seem to “have it all” are struggling to survive. A person you envy could be facing unspeakable suffering right now.
“Unless you’ve experienced mental illness, you can’t imagine what it’s like.”
If you haven’t felt depression or anxiety, you just don’t know what it’s like to feel relentlessly “stuck” in a state of turmoil. Imagine a time you have felt incapacitating physical pain that wouldn’t go away, like a severe headache. That’s how all-encompassing and intense mental illness can be for me and others.
“Medicine isn’t a cure-all.”
Many of us have tried medication, and many of us have chosen to avoid medication. For some people, it isn’t the right choice, and for some people, it isn’t always effective. Further, medication cannot take away the acute psychic pain of depression or anxiety. Please know that the decision to take or not take medicine is a personal one, and I hope I have your support either way.
“Sometimes the best I can do is stay in bed or cry all day.”
Let me cry if I need to cry. It’s okay, and it’s actually good for me. What you don’t understand is that crying may make you feel bad, but it may be the only thing I can do to feel some relief. And BTW, if I need to cry and can’t, there’s a greater danger that my mind will turn to some destructive thoughts that would scare the heck out of you.
“I want you to be there for me (even if that just means sitting with me in silence).”
Whenever you feel you must do something to make me feel better, I appreciate your effort and intention, but you need to know that it often makes me feel worse. Pain is pain and is tolerable; suffering is feeling alone in pain, and that is often not tolerable. Just sitting with me—and not resenting it—can help me feel less alone in pain, and when you do that, suffering that I can’t live with becomes pain that I can live with.
“I want to be invited and included (but don’t be upset if I can’t go).”
I have good days and bad days and how I feel can change from moment to moment. I may be able to come to the party and have a great time. (I need joy and fun in my life too.) Or I may not feel up to it. If I don’t show up, please be patient and don’t guilt trip me.
“This isn’t a mind-over-matter problem.”
A mind-over-matter approach to combatting depression simply doesn’t work for everyone. Even if you feel this approach would work for you, it doesn’t work for me. I wish it did, but the truth is that most people can’t just “will away” a mental illness. What I really wish you would say to me is, I realize that what works for me doesn’t work for you. Thank you for helping me understand how that expectation hurts you. I’m sorry. I love you and I believe you’ll get through this even if you don’t. You always pull through, and I know you will again.
“Grace and understanding go a long way.”
Please try not to judge me. I am not choosing to be depressed or anxious or to behave in ways that make you uncomfortable. Like most people (and like you!), I am trying to cope the best I can.
“The bottom line is that the depressed, traumatized, and otherwise at-risk people in your life simply want to be seen, heard, and to know that you love them,” concludes Goulston. “If you lend them your empathetic support, they will come to understand that you’re there if they need you. It doesn’t take much for you to make their lives a little more hopeful.”