Building with Love: Being a Friend and Ally to the Mentally Ill

I see a lot of articles these days about how not to talk to a person with depression or anxiety. I’m glad these conversations are happening, and that people are questioning behaviors that are unhelpful, or that may even be harmful, but I would also like to see a louder conversation about how we should be supporting each other in these contexts. Loving someone with any chronic illness poses certain challenges. It can demand patience and adaptation, a willingness to learn, and the ability to show compassion when you genuinely can’t understand where the other person is coming from. It can mean experiencing the secondary anguish of someone’s pain, and it can be a struggle that requires a support person for someone who is living in a supportive role.

But what about situations where we (hopefully) already live in a supportive framework? How do we show love and support for people struggling with mental illness within our organizing communities? These issues frequently come up in such circles, and one would hope that having an established community would go a long way towards ensuring that those involved would have the back up they need to get through hard times, but sadly, this isn’t always the case. So what does it mean to get it right?

In my circles, we frequently repeat the lessons that Assata taught us. Namely, that we must love and protect one another. I say these words almost daily, and almost anytime someone thanks me for helping them out. I say it as a reminder to myself and to them that it’s supposed to be this way. Holding each other up should be the norm, but we all know that it often isn’t. I have seen a lot of the same ableist patterns in organizing communities that I have seen in other settings, but in the realm of organizing, the impacts of these behaviors can have an even wider reach. When people who are seen as being forward thinking, or even leaders in their communities, their behavior can set an example, and that example can be very damaging. Remember, our good intentions do not exempt us from the failings of this society. We all carry those flaws with us, and rooting them out of ourselves takes real work and a willingness to learn.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, I wanted to share some of  the things I have witnessed and experienced that I think should be addressed, in a broader sense, within our social justice spaces and communities.

1. Problem one: not understanding the role of ableism in the lives of the mentally ill.

I once attended an anti-oppression workshop led by a direct action trainer (which is, in of itself, a bad call in my opinion, as I don’t believe most of us are qualified to teach anti-oppression) where the trainer told the crowd that ableism only referred to outward, physical disabilities, and not to mental illness. Anyone who has ever lived with a mental illness knows this isn’t the case. The stigma attached to our conditions can be career crushing and otherwise limiting, or even crippling. The working world, like most settings, is not set up to accommodate those who struggle with mental illness. Many of us are blamed for our symptoms when they manifest themselves, and even blamed for our deaths if our conditions prove fatal.

I can’t count how many times I have heard how selfish suicide is, when in reality, we don’t tend to hold people accountable when they die as the result of a chronic illness. Suicidal tendencies are the direct result of a mental illness, and treatment does not always alleviate those symptoms. There are also issues of inadequate healthcare and access to care that usually go unconsidered in such conversations. Being a person who experiences suicidal tendencies and hearing that kind of judgment is also quite damaging. It plays into the idea that their despair makes them a bad, selfish person. And trust me, feeding those perceptions makes self harm more likely, not less.

Drug use, which is also often a manifestation of mental illness, is likewise stigmatized and even criminalized, which has led to massive incarceration rates for the mentally ill. We don’t tend to incarcerate other chronically ill people for the symptoms of their illnesses, so to say that we are not victims of ableism misses the mark in a very big way.

So how do we address this? One step in the right direction is to make sure that discussions on these topics are led by people who have a strong background in handling such issues. If such a person is unavailable, but the conversation is needed, a lot of research and discussion should go into sorting out what will be covered, and the dialogue should be handled as more of a mutual learning experience than an instructional, information learning opportunity for the audience. Another way to improve upon the situation is for people who are able to do so, particularly people who do not suffer from mental illness, to challenge shame and blame when they encounter it in community. Ask people why they would criticize or penalize someone for falling behind or committing self harm, rather than trying to understand the reasons why and offer assistance.

This is not to say that the mentally ill should not be held accountable for the harm that we may cause in community. As community members, we all sometimes cause harm, and we all have a lot of learning to do. I am capable of learning from my mistakes, and capable of developing coping mechanisms that can help me avoid future actions or words that cause harm, but it is important to understand that a person with a mental illness may be coming from a different place when they are confronted or held accountable. There may be trauma that accountability processes set off (such as triggering PTSD symptoms because a person associates accountability with abusive figures in their lives or pasts) or because they already harbor great anxiety and fear that someone challenging them confirms that they are not a good person, or that people see them as a failed friend or ally. Addressing these types of concerns and showing an added amount of patience can mean the difference between walking someone through a bad situation, and leaving the problem worse than you found it.

Remember that triggering survival mechanisms can lead to the weaponization of those mechanisms, which can mean the conflict at hand only becomes more entrenched, and the parties involved more defensive.

2. Trying to keep them occupied and offering curative advice.

When a person is ill, it’s tempting to assume we know what’s best, especially if we have been in similar straits, or previously supported someone through a mental health crisis. But the truth is, everyone is different. At times, a person may need company. For some, being alone with their thoughts is downright dangerous. For others, being around people when they are symptomatic can be exhausting and intolerable. It can make them feel worse, or even resentful of people who want to help.

It can likewise be hurtful to offer people advice about how to recover. While advice about seeking medical attention may at times be necessary (and assistance with acquiring that care very appropriate), much of the advice given to people with serious anxiety and depression falls under the category of, “I know what will cheer you up.” The truth is, if there were simple solutions to our illnesses, we would have been cured long ago. Odds are, your friend or ally has tried it all, and gotten nowhere with simple solutions. Also, treating a serious medical condition like a simple matter that can be handled with a vitamin supplement or getting out more minimizes the severity of what a mentally ill person is experiencing. Our conditions can be disabling, or even fatal. They should be taken very seriously.

To avoid these missteps, I tend to offer the following advice: if you want to help, ask the person who is struggling what they need. They may not know, but odds are, they know a lot more than you do about what might help them get through a rough time. If they are at a loss for what might help, you might offer some options, but this should be done in a way that doesn’t lean on the person to do what you think is best. “Would it help to plan an outing, to get out of the house for a while?” is a much better question than, “Don’t you think it would help to get out of the house?” Don’t tell people what they need. You are not the arbiter of such things.

3. Ignoring the role that various oppressions and historical traumas play in our experiences of mental illness.

Oppressive structures and various oppressive biases affect not only our access to care, but the ways in which we manifest the symptoms of mental illness. People of color, women, those who don’t experience able bodied privilege, and trans and non conforming individuals carry traumas related to oppressions that their communities face, and the weight of those traumas can have a profound intensifying effect on our experience of mental illness.  Some scientists have gone so far as to suggest that our genes can carry memories of trauma experienced by our ancestors and can influence how we react to trauma and stress.

When supporting someone who is living in the shadow of historical oppression, and processing the day-to-day experience of being a marginalized person in this society, keep in mind that the type of accommodation and support they need may be different. If you are assisting them in efforts to find care, it may be helpful to seek providers with a background in addressing the unique needs of such individuals. There are some providers who have a lot of experience working with people who live highly marginalized lives, and some whose level of inexperience with such issues could be detrimental.

Also remember that being a person living with certain oppressions can increase one’s risk of homelessness, suicide or drug abuse. Heightened concern may may be warranted if a person comes from an at-risk community. If a person is Indigenous, or trans, for example, their risk of suicide is already much greater than the average person’s. If a depressive period seems particularly severe or of great duration, the added risk level for self harm should be considered, and extra support and vigilance may be necessary.

4. A failure to respect agency.

Mentally ill individuals have a right to decide if they should be engaging in the work at any given time. You may want to make certain accommodations to ensure they have added support in getting the work done, but removing a person from a key project because they are struggling could be more harmful than the stress of completing the project. For some of us, the work is a way to step outside of ourselves, and the affirmation of completing tasks that matter is very important. Don’t decide for someone else that they need a break. If you want to assure them that you have their back, and will make sure things get done if they need a breather, that’s great, but don’t tell someone when it’s time for them to walk away. They know more about their limits than you do.

5. Unnecessary doubt.

When a person with a mental illness makes an accusation of harm, particularly in the realm of sexual violence or intimate partner violence, the alleged abuser often defends themselves by questioning the mental stability of the accuser. I have seen this time and again, and it is extremely disheartening when people buy into this logic. This isn’t to say that the mentally ill do not lie. People from all backgrounds lie about all sorts of things in their day-to-day lives. Dishonesty is a very typical human failing. But to assume that a person is a less believable survivor of abuse because they have depression or bipolar disorder, for example, is extremely ableist, especially since the emotionally vulnerable are often targeted by predators because they are perceived as being more susceptible to abuse and less likely to be believed.

I believe in beginning from a place of belief. This can be challenging when we care about the person who is being accused, but regardless of the conclusions we reach, we cannot allow a person’s mental illness to become a crutch for our desire to believe that our friends and allies are innocent of having caused harm. Even good people sometimes do bad things, and they must be held accountable. I know that, over the years, in my own circles, the mental health of survivors has been questioned many times in order to discredit them. This was done regardless of whether the person’s symptoms were under control and regardless of whether or not the person had a history of telling lies about others. If someone’s mental illness predisposes them to telling elaborate lies about others, or imagining events that did not occur, those issues are usually evident long before an accusation of abuse is made. If a person has never demonstrated a propensity for delusions or false accusations, it is highly problematic to assume that their condition makes them less credible.

6. Dehumanizing language.

Terms like “crazy,” “lunatic,” “junkie,” and “crackhead” needlessly dehumanize others. They are part of the popular language, so it is very difficult to put them down (I struggle with this myself), but it is important, if we are building a culture that does not replicate the dehumaizing nature of this one that we build forward with our words as well as our actions. People who are living in active addiction or who are manifesting symptoms of mental illness do not deserve to be dehumanized, and attributing such words to people whose behavior we simply dislike or find astonishing is harmful to the mentally ill as well.

6. Not getting support as a supporter.

One of the benefits to living in community is that you don’t have to suffer in silence or go it alone. This is true for the afflicted, and for their loved ones. Caring for, or even just being there for a person who is in pain can be incredibly draining, and empathy can lead to secondary trauma and anguish. These are real effects of doing the right thing, and it’s okay to lean on others, to ask for help supporting someone, and (with the affected person’s consent) to create a network of support such that you are not the one and only person offering help. We must all love and protect one another. That means we have to create spaces where we all do what we can, rather than forcing certain individuals to do emotional support work.

Getting burned out as a supportive friend or ally helps no one, and if you’re going it alone, the afflicted person may suddenly find themselves without help if you were the only one providing it. We shouldn’t break confidences, but it’s okay to tell a trusted person that you are experiencing emotional burn out or secondary trauma, and need a shoulder to cry on.

6. Diagnosing others.

If you are not a doctor or a person’s chosen care provider, you have no business pathologizing them. You probably aren’t qualified to make such assessments, so don’t.

7. Failing to make the work accessible.

Making organizing work accessible can be challenging. Wheelchair accessible spaces, interpreters, and other methods of accommodation are frequently considered, but how do we make the work accessible to people whose mental health can at times restrict their contributions?

One way to make the work more accessible to individuals who struggle with mental illness is to remind your group that everyone’s capacity is different, and that’s okay. We shouldn’t simply tell people it’s alright to take breaks. We should applaud people when they recognize such needs and do what they need to do to stay as strong and healthy as they can. Working themselves to the point of emotional collapse does not help the movement. Their recovery from a difficult time, however, is good for the whole community.

Self care should be seen as an important aspect of the work, and it should be accommodated. For some, giving all they’ve got will always look different, or happen in different intervals than it will for others, and that’s okay. We also need to learn that telling people that you want to help lighten their load isn’t the only form of help we can offer. We sometimes need to tell people who are obviously working very hard, within the scope of their capabilities, that they are doing ENOUGH. Everyone who does what they can should know that their work matters and that their willingness to throw down, in their own time and way, is essential.

This list is not complete, but I am grateful for the contributions of members of my community who helped fill it out with their advice. I am very grateful for the people I work with and share community spaces with here in Chicago. While, like everyone, we have miles to go, I am constantly touched by how willing we are to support each other. I have been more supported in the past year than I have ever been before in my efforts to survive, and at times thrive, in spite of an illness that can be quite crippling. I talk about it a great deal, and people are very welcoming of those conversations. They understand that I both talk to seek support, and to make these discussions more visible, so that others might feel more understood, or even more able to tell their own stories. I want others who similarly live with these issues to enjoy the same support that I do, and for people in my community to aspire to be even more competent in how we handle these issues. I am not exempt from that need. It is something I strive for, because like most people, I carry internalized oppressions that at times make me a lousy friend and ally, even to people with whom I experience shared struggle.

As I said, this piece is quite incomplete, and I would love to hear from others about more ways that we can love and support one another in these contexts. Please feel free to tweet at me if you would like to get your ideas out there. If people have a lot to say, I may write or host a follow up piece. In closing, I want to thank you for caring enough to read this. I believe in your intentions, and in our potential to do right by the vulnerable. To quote Assata once more, “i believe in the sweat of love and in the fire of truth. And i believe that a lost ship, steered by tired, seasick sailors, can still be guided home to port.

I believe that we’re all on that ship together, and that if we care for each other as we build, we will find our way home.

1 Comment

  1. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have happened upon this write-up at this time. I live in a fairly new community. You can call it an “intentional community” if you need a euphemism for “commune,” but basically we’re a newly established commune with the shared goal of living a low-impact, sustainable, sharing lifestyle in response to environmental degradation/climate change/capitalism. Just this morning we had a group “check in” that spiraled into a three hour meeting about each other’s emotional needs. Our community includes members who have been fighting a diverse range of mental illnesses, from bouts of intermittent depression and addiction to PTSD and schizophrenia. There isn’t one of us who hasn’t been affected by mental illness, and now we are all together doing our best to love and protect each other in this space. Recognizing our individual needs for community in dealing with these aspects of our lives is probably what brought a lot of us together. (That, of course, and climate change.) But it is a rough road. These “heart meetings,” as we sometimes call them, are terribly draining for some of us–even as we all have deep pains we need to express. Everything you wrote here speaks directly to our situation, and I will be sharing this with my friends. Thank you!


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