Wednesday, 6 May 2015

What to say, when you don't know what to say. 13 helpful things you can do for you friend who is suffering from a mental illness

We all know someone diagnosed with a mental illness. Indeed I imagine for every friend known to be suffering there will be at least one other all alone with their illness. As someone who knows that a number of my friends are dealing with mental health issues, I know I find it hard to reach out and try and help.

However as one of those friends who is suffering from mental ill health I know how important it is to have someone make the effort to reach out and just say hello. It sounds like it should be easy but I can understand you reticence. Will I say the wrong thing? Will I make things worse? Will they think I'm ignoring their issues by just talking about my day? The list is endless. However, never forget the power of just asking, "how are you today?"

So do you want to know a big secret? We actually like the same things as someone who isn't mentally ill. I know, right, this is huge!

I know, I know, I'm making light of a pretty serious situation but perhaps the one thing I want over anything now that I've come out of my mental ill health closet is to be treated as an equal. An equal, who may have persistent thoughts of suicide yes, but also wants to be treated like they are normal too. 

It sounds counter-intuitive, I totally understand. However, whether you feel all along in your mental illness or like me are in a locked psychiatric ward it is "normality" we crave. It's not fun being on a psychiatric ward, it's the opposite of normal. 

So I thought I would put together a little list of things I know I would appreciate whilst in hospital (and I'm hoping others would too!)

Remember there are endless restrictions on psych wards. Oh how I miss my hairdryer and tweezers! The rules are important, so please don't try and outwit the nursing team by bringing in contraband items. The rules are there to protect and staff and patients. Different wards will have different rules especially psychiatric intensive care units.

Let's start small remembering that the smallest kindness means a great deal when you feel abandoned. I'm going to talk as if you were sending me your love because linguistically it sounds much nicer! (And of course I'm fishing for love!)

1. Text message - just a note to say you're thinking of me means the world. Those sweet little words just feel so nice especially when you can look back at your support on a dark night. As with everything else I'm going to mention today, please don't expect a speedy reply or even a reply. Unsurprisingly words don't always come so easily, especially if you're known for being relatively humourous and erudite - I should listen to my earlier advice!

2. Emails - I've received some rather lovely emails whilst I've been in hospital They are are most welcomed. However, not everyone will be allowed to use their laptop or phone. Indeed even if they can data allowances are burnt through in minutes (or perhaps that's just me - stop watching TED talks you idiot!). Chargers are also an issue so patients will not usually be allowed to keep any wires in their room, so again, response times will be slow!

3. Phone calls - I've kept in touch with my darling Grandmamma this way. Only for her to tell me she thought it would be a good idea to get the bus home from hospital instead of bothering patient transport after a trip to physiotherapy and she promptly fell over. Oh she is a tough old bird, silly but tough. Anyhoo, there is nothing better than someone else moaning about their issues and asking if you had any thoughts about how to help them. Again, normality, being asked to help with someone else's problem feels good, even if you can't offer anything. 

4 Trashy or not so trashy magazines (and I would say cigarettes too but my public health training forbids me!) - they are almost used as currency on the ward. Anything to ingratiate yourself to your fellow patients. It makes for an easier ride. In my last stay I've not been allowed out without Bean and so I've had limited means of bringing in the trash!

5. Pretty cards - they are always so pretty. Indeed this post was somewhat inspired by the clever and thoughtful empathy cards from Emily McDowell. They say what you might find it difficult to say. Perfect aren't they.


It's probably best if you send a card to home rather than the hospital (assuming there is someone who can bring it to them). Just a few words of encouragement or just general chit chat is lovely to read. I truly adore the sweet cards I've been sent. Seeing them on my bedside table makes the day just seem a little brighter. They ooze love. Oh and if you have a friend with cancer there are some perfect cards for that too.

6. Music - my lovely friend sent me Taylor Swift's new(ish) album. You certainly don't want to be sending people Massive Attack! Happy upbeat music all the way. Even my Grandmamma's toy boy (he's not that young really but he is lovely) sent me some music on "the iTunes," what more could you possibly want!

7. Books - send a book you love - perhaps nothing too heavy or preachy. Obviously you can send life-changing books but please don't expect me to read them. My concentration is hideous and whilst I'd love to read Thomas Pinchon I'm more likely to appreciate Hyperbole and a Half's - Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened which Bean bought for me last year or perhaps Cat Lady Chic which I happened upon in Waterstones this afternoon trying to hide from the rain.

8. Beauty joys - hello indulgent hand cream or perhaps the odd temporary tattoo so you can forget, just for moment that you're stuck on a locked psychiatric ward and you're just treating yourself to a little luxury. I have enjoyed playing with temporary tattoos from Rifle Paper Co and again from Emily McDowell. They just add a little fun and whimsy to my day. I find that if you can stimulate your scent memory bank you can transport yourself to another world. Indeed I have a handkerchief from our wedding which I've sprayed with Bean's wedding cologne and I find it so soothing, especially when the ward is noisy and unsettled.

9. Lovely noms - oh yeses, hospital food is hideous. So hideous. I'm lucky that Bean can bring me home, most nights, so I can make a salad to take back with me. However not everyone is so lucky. There is a distinct lack of fruit and veg and when the odd piece of fruit finds its way into the communal area you can guarantee that one person will try and take it all. Oh to have strawberries! I'm also very lucky that I have friends who bake me cakes. Much appreciated. 

10. Flowers - I'm never going to turn down flowers, it is the thought that truly counts. However can the snob in me just wants to insist that you move away from the evils of Interflora. If you want to send cheap flowers Bloom and Wild always have little discount and their flowers are great! Although avoid lilies. I really associate them with death and their pungent fragrance gives me a headache! In my time as a patient I've enjoyed a bouquet or two, but even if you could bring a few bluebells or muscari from your garden (well that's what's in our garden right now along with wild garlic - whoop!), that would be perfection. Again it truly is the thought that counts. 

11. A balloon - I adore these giant balloons with the amazing fringing. I can't help myself. I know they are ridiculous but sometimes the absurd is what you need! I have no idea is Bean reads my blog but ahem, cough, cough, splutter. Perhaps more suited to when your friend is back at home and feeling hopeful because the strings and helium aren't really suicide watch friendly.

12. Visiting the hospital - Hugs are always wanted we're not infectious. The sense of touch is incredibly important, to feel connected to another person is vital to ground you in the moment. However, please don't be upset if you're not invited to hospital. It's different from a normal hospital ward. My own covert and overt stigma about mental illness means that I am afraid of my two worlds mixing. The world where I'm Anna and the world where I'm a psychiatric patient. I fear that it might be hard to be seen as just Anna when I've allowed friends to look into the abyss. 

Perhaps I'm too wary, if you are invited for hugs, hold your friend close. It truly is a wonderful feeling to be accepted no matter your ills.

Finally, 13, its unlucky for those closest to the patient. Keep in touch with spouses and partners - Please don't forget their nearest and dearest are probably struggling too. Whilst being a patient is incredibly hard it is important to recognise and support spouses. I feel Bean's worry and stress. He acts as the messenger and holds my hope that things will get better but he also experiences and absorbs my distress. I'm very lucky he has a wonderful support network but every time I talk about myself on facebook I make a little plea that Bean needs chocolate and hugs. 

Crumbs this has been a long post. I guess what I'm trying to say is that you obviously don't need to do every little (or quite big) thing I've suggested. It's about finding what you are comfortable with and caring about someone you love who's not having a great time right now.

It all boils down to love and hope. You can't do anything more for us, as much as I would love you to banish my evil thoughts forever, it's just not going to happen. We hopefully have the therapy and the medication we need to do that. What I crave for is a few moments in the day where I can smile or feel loved. 

So, if you ever go through something similar I hope that I could hold onto your hope and make you smile for just a moment. Because moments turn into minutes, minutes turn into hours, hours turn into days and days turn into forever. And that's all we can hope for, a future.

1 comment :

  1. Rebecca Jones6 May 2015 at 21:01

    This is a lovely post Anna. I used to struggle most of all with well meaning family/friends/colleagues asking me on a daily basis if i was feeling any better. Their hearts were in the right place but obviously it takes a while to 'turn a corner'. Sending you lots of hugs, i have been thinking about you. X

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