I recently finished John Green’s newest book Turtle’s All The Way Down. It is, among other things, about a teenage girl, Aza, that suffers from Anxiety and OCD in the form of intrusive thoughts. (Sound familiar? If not, please refer to previous blog posts written by the original creator of this blog.) One of the things that I found most interesting about this book is not just Aza’s narrative of her mental health frustrations, but the way her friends and mother deal with it. At one point, her best friend tells her that it is “exhausting” being her friend. Her mother is constantly checking in on her anxiety levels. It got me thinking; “What are some appropriate ways that we (the non-anxious) can help those we love who experience any sort of mental health struggle?” I have come up with a strategic list of six things that might help you be the supportive friend, partner, parent, or child of someone you know that could use a little support.
*Disclaimer: The list might not actually help. It’s just the list that helps me. Please remember that every person is an individual.
1: NEVER ASSUME YOU KNOW WHAT THEY NEED.
One of the things that never works is telling someone in the throws of a mental health crisis, “Hey, just stop thinking that.” It’s not that easy. Trust me, if they could, they would. Also, saying things like “Why don’t you go lay down?” or “Have you taken your medication?” or “Let’s do something to distract you.” Are usually ineffective. Laying down to be alone with one’s thoughts can be just as terrifying as being with people. Their medication is none of your damn business (except for when it is). And distractions usually don’t work.
2: SOMETIMES, YOU NEED TO ASSUME YOU KNOW WHAT THEY NEED.
HA! I see the look on your face. “But you just said don’t assume!” I know. Confusing right. So is mental health. Here are some times that making assumptions might help. 1 – If you know the person well enough to know their triggers, avoid the triggers. For Jordann, if she doesn’t get enough sleep, her anxiety spikes. So I give her opportunities to sleep if it’s been a particularly rough week of sleep. 2 – If they haven’t been meeting their basic needs, encourage them to do so. Sometimes, a snack helps. Sometimes, sleep helps. Sometimes, physical touch helps. (Sometimes, none of these help.) Sometimes, a distraction does help. Going outside has a million benefits for everyone. As does physical movement, like a nice walk. The key to step two is that you have to REALLY know the person you’re trying to help. And don’t be offended when your efforts are denied.
3: REMEMBER THAT IT’S HARDER FOR THEM THAN IT IS FOR YOU.
You know what’s really hard? Being a constant support for someone with a mental illness. You know what’s harder than that? Having a fucking mental illness!! If at any point you think, “Ugh! This is so hard! Woe is me!” then take a step back, take a deep breath, and get over yourself.
4: HAVE AN OUTLET
On that note, it’s important for you to have an outlet too. Because it really is hard to constantly be on call to support as needed. Or to always be a little concerned about how the person you love feels. But it’s not their job to make you feel better about their mental health. So find someone else to talk to. Maybe a friend. Maybe a therapist.Someone who won’t judge. Maybe someone that gets it, but it’s not a requirement.
5: FIND WAYS TO EDUCATE YOURSELF
I like the podcast The Hilarious World of Depression. Real people telling their stories in a very relatable way that helps me understand what others might experience. Some simple Google magic could help too. It’s important to remember that no two people are alike. Just because two people have OCD, it doesn’t mean they experience it in the same way. Whatever you learn or hear is a starting point or a reference point. It’s not the law and it’s not set in stone.
6: ALWAYS BE THERE
Taking into consideration that all of the other points are extremely contradictory, this is the most difficult. The most important part of this is to talk to your person. Find out what they need. Don’t do it in a moment of crisis. That shit never works. That’s as bad as me trying to come up with a plan to sleep train our kids at 3:00 in the morning. Come up with a game plan. Ask them how they want you to respond or react. Ask them what their triggers are. Ask them what would help them when they’re really struggling. And then, in the throws of really bad day, remember that there is a very strong chance that none of it will help at all. And that’s okay. They know you’re still there.
I hope this helps. And if it doesn’t, sorry you just read this super long post and got nothing from it. At the very least, read Turtles. It was a great book.