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How Can I Do Better?

Questions I have for Someone Living with Mental Illness

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I may be someone who likes to boost others in their endeavors to be more open about their mental illness but I have a confession: I know I’m not doing the best I can.

Part of this is due to my lack of understanding. I like being an advocate for others but I struggle to pinpoint ways in which I could not only highlight others’ stories but also educate people on the importance of breaking the stigma.  

I asked Steven Pappas some questions about living with mental illness to better understand what he goes through.

Q: What language should I avoid using?

A: As a human, you should not use the “r” word but some people still do to describe mental illness. There are differences between mental illness and behavioral disorders and people don’t always know that. There are people out there who consider mental illness the same thing as folks who are special needs and that’s also not true.

“Crazy” is a big one and while it does not bother me that much because it’s vernacular, I try to be mindful of those sorts of things and I appreciate when listeners reach out and say, “Hey I don’t mean this offensively but like could you tailor your language a little bit?”

I think with mental illness though the big language is “crazy”, “insane” and then there are words you don’t use as slang but are difficult like “unstable” is a frustrating word because I’m not unstable or any time someone says something that suggests I’m to be feared or that I’m fragile.

We got an email basically saying the norm is to say “died by suicide” or some variation of that or “completed suicide” because suicide is no longer a crime in a lot of places so by saying “committed suicide” it places more guilt onto the person and adds stigma especially to those who have attempted suicide or are contemplating suicide so that’s language that I’m trying to fix but as a survivor of two suicide attempts like, it’s hard for even me not to say committed suicide because that’s what we’ve been taught.

“…that’s the kind of language we look for; something like you feel trapped, you feel cornered, you feel like there’s no way out of your situation.”

Q: What are signs I should look for that someone is in need of help?

A: Some people can say things and they just mean those things. But if it’s a person who struggles with severe mental illness and if something feels off, if they start talking about feeling trapped…that was a big one for me and I ended up talking with my therapist. She’s like “that’s the kind of language we look for; something like you feel trapped, you feel cornered, you feel like there’s no way out of your situation.”

People who say they feel helpless, people who talk about feeling purposeless, and any time you hear things like, “Nobody would care if I wasn’t here anymore.”  When I have suicidal ideation I just flat out say I should kill myself.

Q: What are mental illness stereotypes you feel are damaging?

cracked glass

A: That we will break. Viewing people with mental illness as made of glass. For me it’s just that idea that they’re made of glass, you’ve got to walk on eggshells and it’s like no, I’m a normal person.

Sometimes maybe we can’t handle some things but you’d be shocked at how resilient a lot of people who deal with mental illness are. We bounce back pretty well and I think people just need to know it’s okay to tell us things. We’re not going to break. Sometimes we need somebody to tell us something we don’t want to hear. And that’s okay or don’t be scared to tell somebody the truth just because they cope with mental illness. 

Q: If you go silent, is there a “too soon” as far as reaching out to help you?

A: No. I don’t think so. I think it’s just a matter of being comfortable with whatever the response is. So if the response is, “Hey, I just need some time right now,” cool, awesome, check back in a few days. I have a few friends where it’s like, I’m safe, I’m good but I need more time. You just have to be ok with whatever the response is. But I don’t think anybody is offended.

Q: What would you like to see more of regarding mental health awareness?

A: More mental health awareness. More people understanding that like, people need to educate people more on the difference between stress and an anxiety disorder. The difference between sadness and depression; they are different. I read a study once, and I talked about it on the show, the author said, “Sadness is the common cold, depression is cancer.” This is a thing and helping people understand how widespread this is but also the severity of it because unchecked depression in people with severe depression is terminal. That’s a controversial thing to say. But severe depression will kill you just as much as diabetes, heart diseases or cancer because one in every four people in the United States struggles with mental illness. Of that one in four, one out of every five of them will attempt or complete suicide.

People need to talk about the fact that it’s not rare, it’s not just being sad and it’s not just being stressed. I wish more people would understand if you have the flu, you go to the doctor, if you have depression, you go to the doctor. Pills are not something that should be stigmatized. If you take medicine for cholesterol, you do chemo for cancer or you do anything like that you have no place to tell people they should not take mental health drugs because they’re treating their condition. Just saying…off my soapbox.

Q: What are instances where I should speak up for you?

A: I would say if I’m not there. If I can’t speak for myself, it’s good to have an advocate to speak for me. It’s good to have someone say, “Hey, maybe don’t do that. Maybe don’t say that.”

It’s defending people when they can’t defend themselves but like I said I think it’s important to let people be their own voice because they need to have agency.

Q: What can I do to better help you?

“Don’t ever say you understand. Don’t tell your friends you understand what they’re going through because you don’t. You can maybe relate and you can sympathize but you don’t understand.”

A: Every person is going to be a little different but overall I think the number one thing is to be vocal in your support of them. Don’t be super vocal in your way like, “Oh my god let me help you, ok I’m here for you” every five minutes. We get it.

Don’t ever say you understand. Don’t tell your friends you understand what they’re going through because you don’t. You can maybe relate and you can sympathize but you don’t understand. I honestly don’t think anybody fully understands anybody else’s situation. Let them know that you are there for whatever they need regardless of what it is. If you need me to be silent, I’ll be silent. If you need me to talk to you, I’ll talk to you. If you need me to go the fuck away, I’ll go the fuck away. Just kind of whatever you need. Make clear that it’s up to them how much you help.

Q: Is there anything specific that makes you feel better when you’re in a depressive episode?

A: There’s stuff that makes me feel momentarily better. I don’t know that there’s anything that gets me out of it except for my own will to get out of it eventually or chemicals. I think for me, it’s just knowing I have support and working through some stuff. It’s taking time for myself. It’s being able to not focus on everyone else. Because a big part of my thing is I just try to take care of everybody. I try to be everything to everyone all the time and I’m nobody to myself half the time so it’s just about me learning to like feel selfish about it but looking out for myself. So just having that capability to look out for myself and take care of me is really helpful and usually helps me get back to a good space. 

Special thanks to Steven Pappas for taking the time to chat with me and help me on my quest to be a better mental health advocate.

Emily Ridener

A few words about me

There are quite a few mottos I like to sling around including but not limited to, “Life is short, eat the cupcake,” “What would Wednesday do?” and perhaps most importantly, “What’s so great about normal?” I don’t approve of people who put others down because society has taught us they are “less” and I choose to use my words to share truth, do no harm and combat ignorance.

Steven Pappas

Steven Pappas

A few words about me

For me, this podcast was the start of an amazing journey. I started writing blogs during my mental breakdown, and moved on to doing the show. Now I’m in a much better place and enjoying time with my wife and dog… and the fetus. It’s my kid, just don’t know what to call it. Anyway, mental health is super important!