I missed work a number of times during my six-year tenure at a job where I had a stigmatizing boss. Work can be a scary place for people who have a mental illness, especially when your managers or co-workers treat you as incapable or unintelligent. I am still shocked that my boss felt this way about me — she and I previously held the same position and I was just as qualified as she was for the job. However, she made it clear that she thought I was entirely incompetent, and my condition further deteriorated.
People with mental illness want their employers and the people around them to know that they are capable of thriving in a meaningful job, even if that includes taking absences from work or requesting accommodations. No one’s capability is questioned when they return to work after a physical issue, such as a heart attack, or injuries from a car accident. Even if I never return, I hope you will not consider me a failure. That is just how life happens sometimes.
Know that we don’t want to be left alone
There are multiple ways to support someone who has a mental illness, but the best advice I can offer is to just listen to them. It is that simple. Many people don’t want tons of overwhelming advice on all the community organizations and government services that support people like them. Maybe leave a pamphlet behind, but don’t tell them what they should do.
People with mental illness often just want their loved ones to be there. I personally love having someone there with me, even if I don’t want to talk. A warm hug can help ease the dreariest moments. Many think that people who have mental illness just want to be left alone, but this is often the furthest thing from the truth. If you are making this assumption without evidence, you are quite possibly mistaken.
Recognize that everyone’s recovery is different
It is imperative to know that recovery looks very different for every single person with mental illness. Some people can sustain employment and others may never work again. Some people may eventually develop deep and intimate relationships, while others may feel so much pain that this is not a possibility. Some will travel overseas and others may find it impossible to leave the house. All of these realities are okay. We all just have to meet people where they are.
I speak from my own experience, but I have been around a lot of people with various disorders over the past 15 years who share similar beliefs and viewpoints. I continue to embrace the idea that no matter what our challenges, we can all live extraordinary lives. This may look different for everyone, but it is important to keep in mind that simply surviving mental illness is a truly extraordinary accomplishment.