Let’s say you have five people in your family and another five who are close friends. Or four and six – enough to make up ten people in your life, anyway. Statistically speaking, two of those people will experience mental illness at some point in their life. Or the person experiencing mental illness could even be you. The National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that one in five – or maybe even one in four – people will experience mental illness. That’s 20% to 25% of Americans.
Don’t assume you know who those two people are. Many people with mental illnesses never talk about their difficulties because of the stigma attached to living with a mental disorder. Many others are high-functioning, able to have relationships and work and lead a relatively normal life, especially if they receive proper treatment.
So, what are we talking about when we talk about “mental illness”?
We’re not talking about the person who straightens pictures and has a neat desk.
We’re not talking about the person who is sad after the death of a pet or grieving after the loss of a loved one.
We’re not talking about the person who is overly bubbly and laughing most of the time.
We’re not talking about the person who always seems to be on a diet, no matter how thin she is.
We’re not talking about the person who has some mood swings.
We’re not talking about the person who’s afraid of spiders and germs.
We are talking about people with serious mental conditions like OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), major depression, mania, anorexia, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorder. (There are other psychiatric illnesses, but they are much more rare.)
For harmless habits to be actual mental illnesses, they must persist over time and usually interfere with people’s abilities to accomplish the ordinary tasks of daily living. If a person’s depression lasts for weeks or months (or even years), he may have Major Depressive Disorder. Some of the symptoms are low mood, isolation, feeling hopeless or helpless, and changes in appetite. Of course, all those things happen to most of us at one time or another, but if they last for a long time and keep a person from going out or doing their work, they may be signs of a serious mental illness.
This is not to say that you can diagnose mental illness on your own. A psychiatrist or psychotherapist is needed to tell whether any condition is severe enough to be called a mental illness. And only a doctor can prescribe the medications that can alleviate the symptoms, lessen the effects, and help the person back to stability or mental health.
But if you do have a friend or loved one experiencing mental difficulties – and you probably do – what should you do?
If you are sufficiently close to the person, you could gently express concern and suggest that he might want to tell a doctor what is going on. With an acquaintance, it may be best to simply be understanding and supportive. Don’t be offended when she cancels an outing or can’t make it to a party. Her disorder may be preventing her from going, much as she would like to.
If the person seems to be in danger of harming himself, definitely have a talk with him. Tell him how worried you are and how you’re upset to see him suffering. If the situation warrants, make sure your friend has the number of a suicide hotline or knows that he can call you when he is having excessive bad feelings.
The best thing you can do, though, is to educate yourself about mental illness from reputable sources like NAMI. You’ll find that mental illness is treatable and not likely to lead to violence unless it is very severe. Don’t joke about mental illness. Once I did and it prevented someone with depression from speaking about her condition. Sharing our stories with each other might have brought us both connection and comfort.
Think of a mental illness the way you would think about a physical illness. If a person you know had a broken leg, you wouldn’t ask him to go skiing. If a person you know had cancer, you wouldn’t make jokes about it. If a person you know had the flu, you would understand and might offer to run errands.
Dealing with mental illness is not easy, but it is important. And I assure you, someone you know needs help and support. Think about how you can provide that. Then follow through. It’s often lonely having a mental illness. Do your best to be a good friend. That will help, even if your friend or loved one doesn’t acknowledge it at the time.