As much as it might sound like it, this is not the beginning of a bad Norwegian joke. This is one of the most frequently asked questions I run into. People sincerely want to know what to say or not to say to a co-worker, a friend, a neighbor, or a loved one fighting this terrible disease how to comfort them and not offend them. I sometimes kid them good-naturedly and reply, “Well, you’re doing pretty well talking to me, and I’m someone with mental illness.” And they usually smile and shrug and say, “You know, you’re right.” Sometimes it’s relatively relaxed like that, but sometimes it’s not that easy to know what to say or how to say it. One of the toughest obstacles I faced in my own struggle with mental illness was people who knew about my illness simply not talking to me. Not a situation conducive to intimacy or overcoming isolation.
Thirty years ago, when I was first hospitalized as a teenager, I spent many months in a closed ward in another city. I was worried that when I returned home people would be unkind to me. I imagined them calling me “loony,” “psycho,” “crazy,” etc. What actually happened was much worse. The people from my small hometown are truly wonderful people and no one was mean to me. But because there was little or no information available thirty years ago in a small, rural, farming town, people didn’t understand the disease. They were worried that they might say something that would hurt me, offend me, or perhaps make me worse. So many of them didn’t say anything at all. That kind of silence is the hardest thing in the world to fight. If my classmates would have taken me out behind the school and beat the monkey feathers out of me on a daily basis, that I could have fought. That I could have lived with. But silence, even if it’s from loving, kind people, is still silence. And I felt alone, unloved, isolated, shamed, judged.
Sometimes people said things to me that, even though they were trying to be helpful, felt like daggers in my heart. “Pick yourself up by your bootstraps.” “I have tough days too, but you don’t see me moping around.” “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” “What if you had a REAL disease?” And my “favorite”: “God never gives you any more than you can handle.” That from a hospital chaplain after one of my best friends on the ward took his life and I found his body. I remember replying to the chaplain, “Does this mean that if I were a weaker person, then John would still be alive?” I got silence to that, too.
For the most part, what you say to a person with mental illness is the same as what you’d say to a person with MS, or cancer, or diabetes, or with no disease at all. That’s not to say that if a person with schizophrenia is acting or talking in a scary way that you can’t offer him assistance. Or say in a kindly and tactful way that he is acting in a way that’s scaring or confusing you. You are not doing anyone a favor by not telling them that what they’re doing is making them more isolated and alone, more socially disconnected.
I have a friend, Tim Fuzzey, who’s a pastor at one of the largest Lutheran churches in the city. He’s one of those rarepeople that always make you feel good after you’ve seen him, even for 30 seconds. A couple of months ago I was speaking at his church, doing PR for a mental health event we were organizing for the following week. I started talking with a young person who was battling depression and a traumatic brain injury, trying to sell her on coming to the event.
The combination of these two tough ingredients had made this young woman hard to talk to or deal with. Her point of view, understandably, was pretty negative. With good reason, she saw the world from an adversarial position, and her losses, pains, and physical troubles had become her main focus.
While I was talking with her, Pastor Fuzzey came up beside her, nudged her elbow with playful familiarity and said, “Hi. How’s my friend today?” She visibly brightened when she saw her old friend, and started telling him the symptoms she was dealing with. Tim listened intently, but then added, “And my day is better, because you’re here and I get to see you.” Every time she started focusing on her troubles, he listened respectfully, expressed sympathy for her pain, offered tactics for some troubles, and then tried to temper her complaints with positive ideas. And it worked. She talked less and less negatively as they conversed, and she saw some bright spots in her day and life. And when Pastor Fuzzey had to go, it was with the promise that they’d see each other again soon, and you could actually see the new lightness in her step.
Next week when we ran the mental health event, this young woman surprised me by showing up. But it was soon clear that she wasn’t there to hear me. She was there for her friend Tim. She was there because he talked with her as a real person, with affection and with respect, and he was someone who said and believed nice things about her. Someone who didn’t judge her. Someone who made her feel good about herself.
Sometimes we’re afraid that if we are nice to someone who’s lonely, their need will make them cling to us, and overwhelm and drown us. Tim’s kindness, appropriateness, and friendship combined with a wonderful, healthy boundary is a crucial key, I believe, to why this young woman comes to this church and finds happiness there. And her joy and friendship, I believe, is a crucial key to why Tim also comes to this church and finds happiness there.
So what do you say to a person with mental illness? How about starting with: “Hi. How’s my friend today?”