How Do We Help Someone Who Is Mentally Ill?


Of late, the topic of mental health has gained momentum and has gone to occupy quite a conspicuous place in the discourse of social media. But with the rise of conversations around it, comes the peril of half-baked knowledge and misconceptions stemming from a lack of concrete understanding; which can be very detrimental to the psyche of someone who is actually suffering.

Here is a list of what not to do, and what to do instead:

-When someone says, “I have depression/anxiety/bipolar disorder/any other mental illness.” Do not jump in and say, “I think I have that too,” unless you’ve been diagnosed by a clinical practitioner. This is not with the intention of dismissing your concern, but it is to ensure that the survivor’s struggles are not trivialized.

There’s an increasing tendency of using terms like ‘depressed’, ‘anxious’, ‘panic attacks’, ‘OCD’ outside of context, more as adjectives. But they’re not just that.

Feeling low, feeling anxious, feeling scared, feeling angry and feeling every other kind of emotion is natural to all humans. Everyone has good days and bad days, but sadness does not directly equate to depression. It’s like someone who’s having a coughing fit as a consequence of a bad flu, proclaiming that he/she has asthma.

So, the next time, don’t say ‘I had a panic attack’, when you were scared. Or say that ‘I’m OCD, because I like to have my pens in a straight line.’

  • So, what can you do?

When someone tells you about their illness, listen. Do not act in a patronizing manner, do not treat him/her as if they were incompetent; and the best thing to do is ask them how you can help.

If you want to genuinely be there for them, read up about their illness and try to understand their perspective better.

If you feel that you might be suffering from a mental illness, don’t mention it at the jump of a gun. Research about it and if you think you need help, get help.

-If someone has a bad day, is upset or is having a breakdown, do not tell them to stop being dramatic. Do not call them a ‘psycho’ or an ‘attention seeker’. While these words are flung around rather mindlessly, they can be deeply harrowing for the person whose struggles are being belittled. If you cannot empathize or extend support, walk away. Really. The last thing someone wants when they’re in a dark space, is more negativity. And I fully understand that not everyone has the bandwidth and gravity to be able to support someone during a breakdown, but the least you can do to not is exacerbate their situation.

  • How can you help?

If you want to help, firstly, pat yourself on the back. The gesture in itself is worth commending. Next, try to listen to them, talk less. Try not to judge, if you can’t help it, keep it to yourself. If they’re telling you about something that they did wrong, don’t make it worse by reinforcing it or blaming them for it. (You can talk about that later when they are in a better headspace).

If you’re relatively close to them, try to make mild physical contact like wrapping an arm around them or holding their hands (if you don’t know them well enough, ask them if they’d like it: remember, it can act as a trigger). Assure them that you’re there for them.

-Continuing from the previous point, don’t say ‘I’m here for you’, if you do not mean it. It is important to understand that a mental illness can make one feel very vulnerable, lonely, and misunderstood. While hearing the fact that someone will be there for you is very reassuring, if you don’t mean it while you say it, it leads to a feeling of rejection and deception which can push one down the rabbit hole further.

  • What you can do instead:

If you genuinely mean what you said, then make sure you show it in terms of your actions. You don’t have to do much, an occasional text checking on them in itself can make a huge difference.

What you need to remember, is that in this process, if you find the person plummeting further into a negative space, intervene and get them help at the earliest. If there is a physical distance between the two of you, alert an immediate family member/friend who can take them to their practitioner and find out how he/she can be helped.

Patience is key to this process, it can get a little frustrating at one point, but understand that it takes immense courage and trust for someone to open up and share their fears and insecurities with someone. The fact that someone has bestowed that level of faith in you, should make you realise that you can make a ginormous difference and that it means much.

-Don’t attribute all their actions and thoughts to their illness/diagnosis. Yes, mental illnesses tend to influence almost all facets of one’s life, but it isn’t necessary that it’ll manifest all the time. Also understand that they’re also human and that not every behavioural aspect of theirs that seems mildly weird, is their illness acting up. The reason I say this is because, it gives the person the impression that they’re somehow horribly crippled by their illness. Like they’re somehow a weird zombie who is plagued by a diagnosis ALL THE TIME.

  • What you can do instead:

If you have been with this person for a while, you should have an idea of what the nature of their illness is. Try to logically see if there is a pattern vis-à-vis the illness over a sustained period of time and if there is, gently broach the subject of revisiting their practitioner. This however, must be done with care and it is important for you to be calm while doing so. The reason I say this, is because it might give them the impression of something serious, which can fuel their angst and apprehensions.

-Please, please, I implore you, do not suggest yoga or homeopathy or long walks or meditation sessions. Do not invoke your aunt who miraculously got rid of her depression through the power of yoga. I am not denying the positive effects that physical activity can have on your body, but sometimes that alone cannot help. Sometimes, these illnesses can be paralyzing. Getting out of the bed, off the floor, in itself appears as an arduous and excruciating task, in such a case, asking someone to go walk is preposterous.

  • What can you do?

Nothing. Chances are that if he/she has a diagnosis, they’re getting help already. Let the medicines do their job, or let the therapy work, until then, just be there for them and allow them to vent, if they choose to.

Lastly, just wanted to say that you’re one gem of a person. If you’re reading this and if you’re read so far (and didn’t just stealthily scroll down like a lazy-bum), you are an utterly kind and decent person. Just the fact that you want to help, and help in an informed way is so lovely. Know that we truly are grateful for your support.

I write this as someone who deals with a host of mental health issues herself, and as someone who is deeply lucky to have people in my life who have supported, been there with me and for me through, thick and thin; and even more importantly, for having not for once doubted my abilities and for seeing me beyond my diagnosis. Without them, I wouldn’t have made it this far.

Your support has the power of making a profound impact, which you might never realise, but we do.

Milana Prakash is an Editorial Intern at One Future Collective.

Featured image: Herald Sun

Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice