With the amount of misunderstanding, stigma, and stereotyping that surrounds mental illnesses, those of us who have one, can use allies. Here are six ways you can fill that role.
- One of the easiest ways to be an ally is to speak about mental illness as an illness and not as a way to define a person. Examples of this are: I have schizophrenia. I am not a schizophrenic. Individuals have bipolar disorder, they are not, bipolar. This may seem very small and irrelevant, but refraining from defining people by their illness is a great step toward treating that illness as a medical condition and not as descriptive of the individuals.
- The second way to be an ally is to know some of the facts regarding mental illness, so if the opportunity arises you can educate someone others. Some of the information that you may find helpful: 1-in-4 (some studies suggest it is 1-in-5) Americans will suffer from a mental illness during their lives; anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness; researchers have found that mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression have more in common than previously thought; with early intervention and treatment, people with a severe mental illness have a better chance of living a fulfilling and successful life.
- Listen. With the use of smartphones, digital music players, and other distracting technology, we are losing the ability to just listen to one another. Listening is a great skill in any relationship, but actively listening to someone with a mental illness can save a life. It is not uncommon for individuals with a mental illness to have thoughts of suicide. Having those thoughts doesn’t mean they will act on them, but if they share those thoughts with you, it is important to hear what they are saying and get them help. Tragically, these thoughts are often not shared. Listening can also help you detect if someone is starting to show signs of deteriorating stability – hallucinations, delusions, grandiose thinking, rapid speech, and other symptoms that indicate intervention may be required.
- If you can, be inclusive. Invitations to events, functions, outings are a nice thing to receive if you have a mental illness. Often, people with a mental illness cancel plans because of social anxiety, depression, paranoia or other symptoms. Continuing to invite individuals who regularly cancel, or can be unreliable in their attendance, is a wonderful act of acceptance of their limitation and symptoms. (This can be a hard thing to do when the individuals don’t show you the courtesy of telling you they can’t make it, or cancel at the very last minute. I frequently hear stories of people who have given up inviting certain people, and their frustration makes sense to me.)
- Build trust. Trust is frequently an issue for people with a mental illness. If you can find small ways to increase the trust in the relationship, it can be very beneficial. If you can become a “safe” person to talk to, it is possible that you will be able to help those with mental illness overcome or lessen their symptoms. There are times when talking can reduce anxiety, paranoia, etc.
- If you like the person, become a good friend. Friends have our backs and they don’t broadcast our weaknesses, or talk about us negatively. Friends look for ways to build us up instead of tear us down. They celebrate our successes and help us present our best face to the world. That is the real secret to being an ally for people with a mental illness – be there for them and you might be surprised at how much they give you in return.
Friends photo available from Shutterstock
Six Ways To Become An Ally To A Person With A Mental Illness