There is a lot of advice out there about what to say or not to say when people tell you that they have a mental illness. Generally speaking, I think the best advice is to ask the person who is sharing the information with you what they would like from you. I know, in terms of my own life, when dealing with depression, that I want very different forms of support at different times. Sometimes I need people to help me problem solve, and other times I just want people to acknowledge that, yes, what I am going through really is shitty, and let me be miserable about it with them for a while.
In Hyperbole and a Half terms, sometimes I just want someone to say “I’m sorry your fish are dead”, and other times I want someone to help me figure out if there’s anything I can do about it.
In my experience, the single most common mistake that people make when I talk to them about the stuff I’m dealing with is switching immediately into problem-solving mode. When this is what I want, it can be very helpful, but when it is not what I’m looking for, it can actually be worse than saying nothing at all.
This is important for people to get, so I’m going to say it again: switching into problem-solving mode when problem-solving is not what I am looking for from you can be worse than doing nothing.
When I just need someone to sit with me and with the feelings I’m experiencing, the last thing I want is for someone to make me feel like they can’t be comfortable with me having those feelings. Sometimes what I need most is for my feelings to be validated. I don’t mean this in the sense that you should agree with me if I say something like, “Everyone hates me.” – I mean this in the sense that if I say that I feel like everyone hates me, you can say something like, “Feeling that way must be really hard.”
We can go into the details of how everyone actually doesn’t hate me later. Right now, what you need to be doing is communicating to me that you can be okay with me having these often-ridiculous negative feelings. What you need to be doing is showing me that you are capable of just sitting with me and being inside of these feelings with me for a bit. When you switch immediately into problem-solving mode, it feels like what you’re saying is that you cannot deal with me having these feelings right now. It feels like you’re saying that my depression is unacceptable to you – that you have to do something to get rid of my depressive feelings immediately.
But they aren’t going to go away immediately. They may not go away for a long time. And to be good at supporting someone with depression, sometimes what you need to be able to do is accept that and let the feelings exist and be good company while they do.
Ask people what they would like from you. When you don’t, you run the risk of making things worse, even if you’re trying to make things better.