Saniya / Female / 27 / Islamabad

Mental illness is considered a taboo in our society, much like divorce, rape, honour killings and anything and everything that makes our people uncomfortable. Mental illness, including, but not limited to depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, paranoia, split personality, have existed for decades and centuries but in the 21st century, more and more people are being consumed by this disease. This is not at all because the new generation is “weak” or “vulnerable”. It’s because our generation is more aware about diseases relating to the mind.

You talk about depression in a social gathering and 9 out of 10 times, you will receive disapproving looks and people coughing uncomfortably, struggling to change the topic. Talk about cancer or heart diseases and the conversation is never-ending – people discuss these diseases as if they’re experts with a medical degree at home, from causes to symptoms to treatment. Why the difference in comfort level when both are diseases, just of different sorts? Because illnesses of the mind make people uncomfortable, they believe it doesn’t exist since they’re not the ones going through it, they believe that people who say they are suffering from depression are just being over-dramatic.

From my social circle, almost 80% of the people are suffering from mental illnesses. Half of them are anxious, the other half are suffering from depression. Why? Because of the unreal expectations put upon us/them. The expectation to score well in all exams, the expectation to marry when a person is not ready to get married, the expectation to have a child within the 1st year of marriage, the expectation of choosing a career that is socially acceptable, the expectation to jump to a 6-figure salary in the first month of employment, the expectation to work 12 hours a day, the expectation to provide all basic and luxurious items for their family, the expectation to be beautiful, the expectation to be manly enough to fit in, the expectation to hate pink if you’re a guy, the expectation to be skinny and have long hair if you’re a girl, the expectation to know English as a first language, the expectation to know cooking and housework if you’re a girl and to know how a car works if you’re a guy, the expectation to live your life based on the wishes of the people living around you instead of for yourself, the expectation that you have no wish but to fulfil other people’s wishes.

There is much that is wrong in this world but I believe one of the worst things is telling someone who is sick that they’re just being dramatic or paranoid. Mental illnesses are real and they exist. Just like all physical illnesses, they need to be treated for instead of pushed under the carpet and ignored. Unless you hold a proper respective medical degree and you have the ability to be empathetic, no mentally ill person requires your opinion. Actually, scratch that. No sane person would, either.

So much awareness is required on the topic of mental illnesses, but more importantly, so much awareness is required on how to be empathetic. So for the sake of empathy, I came up with a brief list of dos and don’ts when dealing with someone who needs help. This is based on my own experiences.

DO’S

  • Do tell them there is hope for them. If they have found the courage to speak about it, encourage them to keep speaking about it and give them hope that they can pull through this.
  • Help them write our their feelings. Writing during stress and/or before or after helps a lot with organising emotions and understanding one’s own feelings.
  • Convince them to seek therapy. No matter how supportive friends and family are, they’re no professionals. Only a professional can help tackle this sensitive disease. And therapy works wonders. Talking about your life, your worries, your mistakes, your achievements, your demons, your goals with a stranger can be so soothing.
  • Make them realise that they can’t please everyone so there’s no point in even trying. As long as their family and they themselves are content with their life, there is absolutely no reason to listen to the petty things that people are going to say regardless of what you do or do not do.
  • Social media is poison during such situations. It will always be full of people trying to show they’re having parties and tours to different places every week and that they’re fun people. It may or may not be true. Do not fall into this trap. Most people use social media to flaunt their life anyway. Convince them to avoid it.

DON’TS

  • Don’t tell them they are mentally ill because they are not close to religion. Religion has NOTHING to do with it. Try telling someone with cancer to not seek treatment and to just pray to God and they’ll be fine. Because if you believe that, just boycott the medical profession altogether and see how that goes for you. 
  • Don’t be that person who says mentally ill people are just overreacting. No they are not. They are just suffering from something you should be grateful you aren’t suffering from.
  • Don’t tell them it’s in their head. It is something that, if left untreated, can be a cause for not only severe mental illness but physical ones as well. I don’t believe that if someone complains about angina pains, people would laugh it off and tell them they’re just imagining it, or if someone breaks a leg, they’re told to pretend their leg is fine and it will be. 
  • Don’t tell them that there are people suffering from ‘real’ problems. Granted, there are a lot of people in the world worse off, but that should not in any way undermine what they are going through. Everyone has a different tolerance level and a different approach to deal with problems and tragedies. 
  • Don’t give them fake empathy by telling them that you are going to support them when you can’t or when they call you up, you are always too occupied to be there for them.
  • Don’t be that person who says “just be happy and you’ll be fine”. If it were that easy, they wouldn’t be in this situation anyway. 
  • Don’t tell them suicide is haram and that they will go to Hell if they commit suicide. They already know it. They already know self-harm is haram too. But can you imagine what that person must have gone through to pick up a blade and start cutting themselves? Or to wake up one day and end their life? Killing yourself is not something that you can ever take back. But can you imagine the pain they are going through to just end their life once and for all? Instead try and convince them what they have to live for. Convince them they are not worthless. Convince them they have their whole life ahead of them. Give them hope. 

The point is, be empathetic to their situation. If you are unable to do so, then just keep quiet. Mental illness is very real and very scary and it eats you up from the inside until you stop recognising even your own self. Be grateful that you do not know how it feels.