Stop reminding us we need to take care of ourselves (and other tips from a bipolar mess)

Share this Post:
Photo courtesy of A.V. Eichenbaum
Photo courtesy of A.V. Eichenbaum

It's important to take care of your mental health. We've all heard this many times from our therapists, loved ones, or strangers on the internet. And that's great. And it's true. But it's not helpful.

I've been designated a "high functioning" basket case over the years. I've got bipolar type 2, ADHD, suicidal tendencies, night terrors, and a general anxiety disorder. I'm medicated now, but I wasn't until 2019.

Most of my life has been spent trying to navigate a harsh world where none of my emotional responses seemed right. Feeling a bone-shattering amount of dread when you roll out of bed in the morning is, apparently, abnormal.

"You've got to take care of yourself."

I've been handed that empty sentence as a symbol of solidarity several times. While I know that it was often supposed to show me that I was cared for, it usually felt more like a command. Another hoop to jump through. Maintaining my composure through a suicidality-inducing panic attack long enough to get the job done isn't enough? What, I'm supposed to eat, too? You think I'm not trying?

Obviously, this isn't what they meant.

It's not an attack. But, needlessly reminding someone of their failings isn't exactly great for their mental wellbeing. Sometimes, even being asked something as simple as "How are you?" can be seen as an affront to privacy if you're twisted up enough in your own thoughts. I've been there.

So how, then, do we help one another? I'm not a mental health expert, just someone who's had to talk to a lot of mental health experts, but here are some ways I've found can show someone you care about what they're going through that don't place more burden on them.

Quick check-ins
There are no breaks for mental health issues. Seeing a shrink and getting medicated is only part of the long fight ahead, and while some illnesses can be kept in check, there will always be good days and bad days.

It's exhausting.

More than that, it's alienating. Finding yourself unable to explain what's going on with your brain or how you feel can cause loneliness in a lot of people, and many of us struggling with mental illness are afraid to reach out because we've been conditioned to think it's burdensome.

If you're worried about a friend of yours, a quick check-in is super easy. A short text or —if you're old-school like me— a phone call can change someone's day. Be sure they don't hate phone calls. I've made this mistake before, thinking "Who hates a phone call? Who hates a short chat?" A lot of people.

Just be there
Some people need a little extra help but aren't great at talking out their feelings or get anxious describing their thoughts aloud. If this is the case for your loved one, try doing activities that involve minimum effort that you both enjoy. Be sure not to force your loved one to do the activity or to hang out with you. Saying things like, "You just need to get outside!" or, "Fresh air is my medicine!" or, "You never want to hang out!" while probably true, are again unhelpful. Soft suggestions are probably better.

"I'm thinking about going for a walk, would you care to join me?" has proven to be much more effective in my experience than "Get your lazy ass out of the house." That's just me, though.

Other things you can do is watch a favorite show or movie together, or you could just hang out and listen to music. It's about simplicity.

Recognize your needs might differ
Everyone experiences the world differently. This applies to mental illness, too. Just because you have a similar diagnosis or similar symptoms to someone doesn't mean you know exactly what they need or how to help. Taking away someone's agency to make their own decisions because you think you know best can be incredibly harmful.

Try asking what your person needs before jumping into solutions. If they're not sure, offer some suggestions of things that help you, but again, don't force them go along with your plan to or pretend it's the only cure in the world.

Be aware of your own boundaries and needs, as well. If your person needs something you're not comfortable with giving, it's okay to take a step back or offer a different solution. I've said it before, but I'll put it in writing — having a mental illness isn't an excuse to be a manipulative asshole.

Your person might not want help
It's not your job to fix everything, and it's not your job to remind someone that something's wrong with them. Some people have genuine trouble asking for help, but sometimes it's as simple as someone not wanting anyone else to help them.

It's hard to come to this conclusion, especially when you care about someone who's going through a hard time. If this is the case for your situation, it's probably easier to step away and be available if they finally accept they might need help. You can't force someone to change, and I've seen many people start hating therapists and mental health professionals because someone else made them go.

This is, of course, bad advice for people struggling with immediate suicidality or self-harm. If you feel you or a loved one is in danger, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255.

Do the research
My word is not the alpha and omega of mental wellness. There are a lot of experts and apps that can be way more helpful to you. Accept that you will have to do some research and that your person should also. Some folks have trouble admitting they're not the only person that can help a loved one. Be willing to accept that there are other ways. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to diagnose your loved one on your own.

Here are some quick resources for you to look into:?

  • The National Institute of Mental Health —
  • Therapy Buddy — App available in Apple Store and Google Play Store
  • Free Mental Health Services —

    There are so many more resources out there, and many more specialized to suit your needs. If you're looking for a therapist in your area, Psychology Today's website has a service that can help you find one.

    My hope is that this doesn't do more harm than good. I'm not a qualified psychologist. I'm a person who's been through the mill one too many times. If this can help someone better understand someone they care about, then I've done my job. Your job now is to approach yours and your loved one's mental health with an open mind.