Disclaimer: Names and situations have been adjusted to protect identities and due to memory faults
As much as it pains me to admit, I’ve made a lot of mistakes when it comes to helping my friends with mental illnesses. I deeply regret the friendships I have lost, when I reacted or behaved in a way that was what the person requesting love was expecting or needed at the time.
Returning readers know I promote the motto “be the light.” The caveat of this, just like with the motto “treat others the way you want to be treated,” is that not everyone wants the same type of treatment from each other. i.e. I expected this kind of light/support from you and what you did instead was inexcusable—with the caveat that everyone has their own version of inexcusable. The result is separation due to irreconcilable differences. I use that specific term because, yes, good, close friendships feel like marriages; when they fall apart a huge part of yourself can be lost, just as it would be in a divorce.
A few scenarios come to mind that I feel might help mental illness allies avoid mistakes. My hope is that through my attempt to share these objectively, someone reading can draw conclusions about actions to take in the future and which to avoid.
Here is how I have unfortunately mishandled some situations.
The Friend Who Threatens With Suicide
A few years ago, I was sitting in a hotel room, a few states away from home. It was scary and painful to read the text message: “I don’t want to live anymore. I haven’t eat'n in hours. I’m going to leave my house and walk until I pass out.” I tried to call. No one picked up. If I was closer, I would have driven over and talked to this person face-to-face. But I was three states away. Due to this person’s ongoing battle with depression, they were not included in the group of people who went away, by their own request. Since Major Depressive Disorder plays well with suicidal thoughts, it didn’t take long for our friend to start feeling worse and even seemingly abandoned.
In panic, I followed the rules I had learned in therapy. If someone might be a harm to themselves or others, police should be called to protect their life. So, I called the police in our hometown to request a civilian check. Our friend was home and okay, but I maintain that suicidal threats should always be taken seriously as they are usually a final attempt at getting the attention and help one needs. I would rather be the person who was ostracized for calling the police than the naïve one, who’s friend died. I maintain this stance.
The Person Who Has Too Much Going On to Help
A few years back, I was the one on the phone crying. I was home alone and the scary, invasive suicidal thoughts were creeping in again. I knew I would never act on them, but sobbing and blubbering on the phone, I am sure the friend on the other side of the line was at a loss for words. I just kept repeating, “please stay on the line, I don’t want to be alone, I am scared.” The friend had to get off the phone. I didn’t blame him/her, but when I asked about it a few days later, the explanation for not staying on the call was “well how was I supposed to know what to do, you sounded bad. I am not feeling well either, so I am not sure how I can keep helping you.”
Since then, I have found the support I I was looking for then, but within a new group of friends. It’s amazing how just being there and listening helps every time. I even have a friend now who follows the philosophy of “hey we’re both stuck, why don’t we try to support each other through it.” I think the reason my old friend was scared, was because they may have felt responsible once they knew they couldn’t do enough. The more I needed them, the more they ended up pushing me away. I was likely not a very good support buddy at the time either, but I am grateful we both tried in our own ways. Even if it wasn’t enough for either of us.
The Friend Who Won’t Admit To Needing Help
A couple of months back, I was reading a wall of text appearing so rapidly in an online chat, that I was scrolling frantically to keep up. It was the desperate typing of someone who had lost friends over how their mental illness had made them behave. The strings were so many words, all berating one person or another for “not being there” and being “selfish and narcissistic.” The only response I had was not appreciated. “I think you should talk to a professional. I don't think I can help untangle this for you, the way a professional will.” Of course, in that instant, I also became “unsupportive” and “another person to let me down.”
Since then, this friend has reached out to me on and off. Although they were verbally abusive when I reminded them that a professional would be the best way to get back to a normal, fulfilling life, without suicidal thoughts and so much anger, I stay in touch. Hoping that once they get the help they need, they'll understand where I came from. I wish that I was qualified to provide psychological assistance, but I know I am not.
Looking Back, I Hope All Of These People Remember
That They Are Not Alone
In all these situations I was the person who could not help, when help was needed. But I have been suicidal and have had the police take me to the hospital—and I was grateful for that. I have stayed on the line for someone who felt scared and alone even though I had something else I needed to do. I was the person who lost many friends before I accepted professional help. Of course, all of these experiences have shaped how I react. They've all taught me something.
It’s all a matter of how an individual perceives support. If you are suffering, I hope you have found the support system that works best for you. If you know someone who is suffering, try to breach the topic of how they wish for you to handle certain scenarios, so that you are prepared and know which actions will be best. #bethelight
Do you ever feel like you've let someone down? What did you do differently? How do you think we should best approach someone in a mental health crisis compared to someone with any other illness?