Dear xoJane, Here's How You Should Actually Respond to a Friend With a Mental Illness
On Thursday, women's lifestyle site xoJane published a first-person essay by writer Amanda Lauren, titled "My Former Friend's Death Was a Blessing." The piece was an extended meditation on Leah*, a former friend of Lauren's who struggled with schizoaffective disorder, a debilitating mental illness marked by paranoid delusions and hallucinations. According to Lauren, Leah spent years descending down the rabbit hole of mental illness, hitting rock bottom when she became a sex worker and drug addict. Leah eventually died by hitting her head in the bathtub.
Most people would think Leah's struggle with mental illness is deeply tragic and affecting; to Lauren, however, it was a pain in the ass, and her death the foregone conclusion of what was ultimately a wasted, shriveled little life. (Never mind the fact that, according to the essay, Leah's only transgressions against Lauren were being messy and talking shit about her friends on Facebook.)
"It sounds horrible to say, but her death wasn't a tragedy, her life was," Lauren concludes, adding, "this girl had nothing to live for."
The piece was justifiably eviscerated on the internet, which attacked the writer for adopting an utterly callous attitude toward the estimated 18.5% of American adults grappling with mental illness. xoJane has since issued an apology for the piece.
Yet the essay wasn't so much a failure of editorial tone as much as it was a failure of human empathy. Most people who are capable of empathy want to serve as resources for friends and loved ones struggling with mental illness — Lauren is the exception, not the rule. Here are a few simple suggestions for those who love someone who might be grappling with mental illness:
1) Listen without judgment, and respond without frustration.
As horrifying as it may be to hear someone describe how despondent they are the first time, even the most patient and empathetic of friends have their limits; by the ninth time, the effect of hearing such statements can wear thin. Even if you've heard the same story about a gaslighting ex-boyfriend or abusive boss 969,000 times, nod and smile and embrace your friend as if it's the first time you're hearing about it.
2) Don't hold them responsible for their failures as a friend while they are sick.
It's common — and indeed should be expected — that someone struggling with a mental illness will flake out of previously agreed-upon social obligations. Even though consistent flakiness might be frustrating, recognize that it is not a reflection on them; it's a reflection on their illness.
3) Make yourself available, but don't be offended if they reject your offer to help.
Not everyone who struggles with depression wants to talk about it, and even if they do, they might not want to talk about it all the time. Make yourself available to your friend as a resource without demanding that they tell you exactly how they're feeling at any given time. Sometimes the answer might be "not great," and it might hurt even more for them to talk about it. Understand that, and know that the best thing you can do for your friend at this moment is to keep yourself at arm's length.
4) Recognize that your help has limits.
Most people are not like Amanda Lauren. Most people who are capable of human empathy see a friend or family member suffering as they would one with a flu or cancer and wish to alleviate them of their burden. Most people do not see suffering exclusively in terms of how it affects them. Most people are good; most people want to help.
But even if most people want to make themselves available as a resource to a friend in pain, that doesn't mean they have the qualifications or certification necessary to serve in a mental health counseling capacity. At a certain point, being a shoulder to cry on can only go so far; if your friend wants to find their way out of the darkness, they have to be proactive about their own treatment and seek the help of a trained mental health professional.
By suggesting that someone struggling with a mental illness go to therapy, know that you are not trying to relieve yourself of the "burden" of helping your friend; you can still do that while someone else serves as a professional resource for them. The best thing you can do is trust that your friend wants to get better and help them come up with a strategy to do so.