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5 Practical Ways to Love Someone with Mental Illness | by Alia Joy

I watched an episode of Modern Love on Amazon Prime the other night. In the episode, Anne Hathaway plays a character with bipolar disorder. I wept through half of it, for I also have bipolar disorder. I, too, have felt the elation of hypomania, the euphoric sense of all being right with the world, the relentless energy and optimism, the frenzy of every synapse and neuron on high alert – like a cocktail of neurotransmitters at a club.

First thing in the morning, Hathaway wore sequins and fur to the supermarket; she was in search of peaches. Looking like a starlet in the produce aisle is the kind of impracticality that accompanies the grandiose upswing of bipolar. But what hit me most was the inevitable crash into depression. Hathaway-duvet pulled up like a fortress: room dark, with she herself unwashed, unbrushed, unable. Her body dragged to bed for days at a time as her life and job and relationships atrophied from neglect.

I saw myself, and I saw my life. Bipolar disorder has cost me much.

Consistency is one of hardest things about my mental and chronic illness. Being consistent when your mind and body are unreliable takes a toll on everyone. I’ve lost friendships and opportunities. I’ve lost community and hope.

Living in a body that cancels dates on the calendar as often as it makes them is burdensome. Preemptively saying no to things you’d love to do because you’re already at full capacity when illness demands you honor your limitations, feels devastating.

When it’s the fifth time you’ve canceled because the deep drag of depression lulled you with the invitation to stop fighting and coerced you to pull the duvet over your brittle, desperate mind while darkness invites you to stay there, you need help. And when that very same darkness whispers you’re alone and unseen, irreparably broken and useless, you need help.

But how can you help someone feeling this way? As I’ve written and spoken about mental illness, people continue to ask me how they can help. Today, I am giving you some practical tips for how you can help – and therefore show love – to those with mental illness:

  • Reach out without expectations. Let them know you’re thinking of them, that they matter, that you love them, and that they don’t need to reply, but that they’re important to you anyway. Send a quick email or text message or card. Those touchpoints matter when someone is depressed. Depression is isolating enough already.
  • Drive them places. Offer to grocery shop or pick up their prescriptions. When starting my antipsychotic, I was dizzy for months. When people offered to drive me to appointments, I was saved from having to exert energy I didn’t have. Getting dressed and moving out of the house was already overwhelming enough.
  • Love their loved ones. Directly caring for and supporting someone with mental illness is taxing. Show your love to those who are caring for loved ones by feeding them, encouraging them, and praying for them. Offer them your vacation rental, or drop off a gift card for a massage. Babysit or do their laundry. Even send chocolate!
  • If you have the resources, offer to help with a copay for an appointment, or volunteer to pay for their medications for the month. Mental illness makes it expensive to survive. When I was having an acute mental health crisis, a friend paid for my psychiatrist appointment and my medication. Without her generosity, I wouldn’t have gotten the help I needed to survive.
  • If your friend or loved one struggles with ongoing depressive episodes, ask (when they are in a time of health) what you can do to best love and support them, should they ever struggle again. When I’m in the depths of depression, I can’t always articulate my needs, but knowing ahead of time how to help me, they can be prepared. Listen to those with mental illness and believe their experiences are valid, even if you don’t understand them.

. . .

Alia Joy is an author and speaker who believes the darkness is illuminated when we grasp each other’s hand and walk into the night together. She writes poignantly about her life with bipolar disorder as well as grief, faith, marriage, poverty, race, embodiment, and keeping fluent in the language of hope in her book Glorious Weakness: Discovering God in All We Lack. She lives in Central Oregon with her husband, her tiny Asian mother, her three kids, a dog, a bunny and a bunch of chickens.

  1. Thank you for posting this! Grateful to know better ways to love and encourage those struggling with mental illness.

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