Here's a photo of me with my friend Randy while on a boy scout camp at Strawberry reservoir (Randy is standing at the front of the boat). Randy was a boy scout leader and I was his assistant. As we worked together for nearly 5 years, he came to understand how my mental illness affected my life. He never criticized, called me to repentance, or tried to "fix" me. For example, when we went on camps, he didn't say anything but words of understanding and  care about me not getting up early in the morning with the rest of the group. He just doubled up his work load and got it taken care of. His words toward me and about me were always complimentary and uplifting. Because he treated me that way, I was happy to offer as much help as I could to him; as I was able. Though my functioning wasn't perfect, in the kind environment he cultivated, together, we helped a lot of boys achieve many scouting awards and have wonderful experiences.

To Say or Not to Say?

People often wonder what they should and shouldn't say to people who suffer with mental illness. Here are my thoughts: 

Let’s start with what NOT to say

  • Number 1. Don’t give advice or offer remedies unless the person asks for them. Most advice or remedies only add to the pressure and burden we are already carrying. Most of the time, we need someone who offers genuine care by listening and validating our worth, more than we need ideas of how we should fix ourselves.  
  • Don’t say, “If you have more faith, pray more earnestly, or live more righteously, you will be happy.” In Isaiah 53:4 it says that Jesus Himself was “acquainted with sorrow.” Did Jesus need more faith and to live better in order to be happy? No.  
  • Unless we ask, don’t offer opinions about whether we should be on medication or not. There aren't any magic pills that "fix" us. What works for one may be harmful to anther. Medication for mental illness is trial and error. It's often a painful process that includes feelings of frustration, desperation, fear, painful side effects, and more. Acknowledging how hard of a decision it is, or telling us you believe we are smart enough and strong enough to decide for ourselves have a much more positive effect than, "Prozac worked wonders for my sister, you should try it."
  • Don’t pitch scriptures or prophets at us with the intent to guilt us into repenting in order to feel better. These kinds of words may connect the ball and bat for some people, but saying it to someone with mental illness may be a complete “foul” ball. I once asked my psychiatrist what he thought about sin being the cause of depression or other mental illness. He replied, “many people commit huge sins but don’t have depression because of it. If committing sin or making bad choices always caused depression, then everyone who messed up would be depressed. But not everyone is, so you really can’t draw that conclusion.”
  • Here's a list of emotions we fight daily: being judged as stupid and unable to make smart choices, that we don't fit in to the happy, confident world, people don't trust us, guilt, fear, and being controlled. Comments that reinforce those feelings, even when they are meant to help, only knock us down lower. 

  • Ok, now let me write some things to BE CAREFUL SAYING

  • Be careful saying, “You need to go take your pill.” This may or may not be the case, but using a degrading, sarcastic, or condescending tone when you say it can quickly ruin a relationship. Quietly and with care and concern on the other hand can strengthen it. 
  • Use kind tones when saying: “What’s wrong?” “You look tired,” “You look horrible,” “you look depressed,” or “Man, you look really down today.” People with depression don’t need to be told they look tired, or sad. We know it. Cold comments in pitying tones about how we look are like throwing heavy rocks to save a person from drowning in a well. 
  • Be careful when you choose to joke about “crazies,” “loonies,” “being locked up in loonie bins,” “freakazoids,” “and “being put in a room full of white rats.” It may be funny to others, but some people who have spent time in the psychiatric ward may be very sensitive to these kinds of references. For me personally, I like to join in the joking and laugh about when I was “totally whacked,” as my friend who was with me during a psychotic break described it. It doesn’t bother me. But if someone is struggling to accept an illness due to fear of the way others may view her if they know…these kinds of comments can be very harmful.  

  • Ok. Let’s get positive and talk about what TO SAY to someone with bipolar disorder. 

  • I love you. Depression has a way of making us feel worthless. The world loves enthusiastic, smiling, “shiny happy people holding hands.” When we’re depressed, we are the opposite of that and it’s nice to hear people tell us they love us anyway. 
  • I believe God loves you. Sharing your faith strengthens ours. Just like someone describes a beautiful sunset to a blind person, telling me you know God loves me helps me to believe it, even if depression makes my emotions blind to it. 
  • That’s depression talking. I know in reality you are an important, capable and awesome person.  
  • I am not afraid of you even though I know you have mental illness. (Say it only if you mean it.)
  • I trust your judgment. (Say it only if you mean it.)
  • Yo dude, whas up? Talk to us like you talk to your other friends and family. If you wonder what the bottom line of what to say to someone with mental illness is, remember this:  Treat us with the same love and kindness you wish people will treat you with. Remember “gloomy old Eeore” in Winney the Pooh? He always had a cloud over his head and comments like cold rain. But his group of friends loved, and included him anyway.  
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