November 28, 2022
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Illustration by Jason Hoffman
When living with a mental illness, identifying sources of support is an important step. Reliability and expertise are just some of the things to consider when looking for the right people.
When it comes to supportive relationships facilitating my recovery from depression, I choose people who will cheer me on through the countless medication trials and hospitalizations — through the rawness of this thing, otherwise known as depression.
My team includes my family members who watched me grow up, friends who sat beside me in French class while I was drafting suicide notes in different colored markers, and co-workers who struggle with their own complications of depression. The point is that you can find potential members of your support team in both the most obvious and unlikely of places.
When I had my first series of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatments, I was deluged with friends and family at the hospital visiting hours. Even though I was so depressed I could barely move, ECT seemed like a drastic treatment that scared those closest to me.
My family worried that I might have irreparable brain damage — that I would never be the same. Everyone worried about the person who would wake up from the anesthesia. Would it be the Elizabeth they knew and loved or someone who didn’t even know that she was locked in a psych ward? Regardless, they all rallied around me.
Every night, I was surrounded by the people I loved, who brought me food from my favorite restaurants and reading material. When people come to visit you in the local psych ward, it’s hard to deny that you are loved. And this also helped me learn to love myself, too: something that is extremely difficult when you are depressed.
And during some of my darkest days during my first year of college, when I was caught between the revolving doors of the psych unit, one of my very best friends came to visit me every day. Seriously, I don’t think he missed a day.
He spent hours in chilly emergency rooms waiting for me to be admitted to the psych ward. While I was wearing a hospital gown, frantically pacing around the perimeter of the tiny room, and tearing magazines to bits and pieces, he spoke softly and kindly, promising me that the doctors would “for sure” figure out what had snapped in my brain this time. His entire family came to the hospital on many nights, too, noticing that my moods were so extreme and erratic that they told the nursing staff they were worried about me.
But some people simply don’t “get” the whole concept of depression. To be fair, it’s an experience that is hard to explain to someone who has never been there before. Even as a writer, it’s difficult to put into words what it feels like to think your brain is broken — and that medication, psychiatrists, and hospitals can’t seem to bring you from the brink.
Some of my best support comes from friends who have been there before or who are currently struggling with their own mental health difficulties. It helps to compare war stories, our experiences with doctors, and all the medications we have tried. But it also helps with the daily struggle to get through the days when you are depressed.
Finding friends who can sit with me or have a meal with me is amazing. These are the people who kept me alive when I wasn’t sure I had a purpose of being here. People who share the experience of depression are fluent in a unique language with its own norms and subculture. This is something that comes with the knowledge of what it feels like to spend some serious time grasping for your sanity.
In looking for supportive people to build relationships with, I also had to weed out the toxic ones. This was especially true when dealing with my college professors. Some were beyond kind, even sharing that they had an uncle with bipolar disorder or that they had struggled with depression themselves. The more understanding professors excused my absences when I was too depressed to make it to class.
But on the other extreme, there were professors who demanded to know why I was in college when I was spending so much time in the hospital. School was probably the most important thing in my life, my only connection back to the real world that I had left behind when I had started to get sick, so this form of discouragement was particularly hurtful.
Unfortunately, friends and family members can be negative for you as well. Anyone who is pessimistic or judgmental probably does not have a place in your support team.
Of course, there is also support that you can pay for: mental health professionals.
There are many different kinds of mental health professionals. For example, psychiatrists can help you identify medications that might bring relief to your depressive symptoms. Therapists can provide support by offering psychological methods to help you overcome problems.
Finding the right mental health professional might take a little digging. To connect with a therapist or psychiatrist, you can call your insurance provider to see which doctors are in-network. Another option is to search for providers online. On certain websites, therapists have profiles with their education, training, and approach to therapy, as well as what methods they take for payment. Some therapists have a sliding scale for clients who cannot afford the regular fee and do not have insurance.
Lastly, you can meet supportive people through groups in person and online. Most areas have support groups for people who are coping with mental illnesses like depression. I have attended some great depression support groups where I met other people who were having similar experiences to me. It helped so much to know that I was not alone. Consider getting in touch with your local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness to find local support groups.
Having a support system can help you get through the worst that depression might throw at you, like waiting for medications to work or possibly even ending up in the hospital. My own supportive relationships have pushed me forward, encouraged me to keep taking my medications, and reassured me that I would feel like myself again. Of course, nobody could tell me the exact moment I would feel better, but just knowing I had an entire team of people cheering me on changed my life.
Medically reviewed on November 28, 2022
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