By Katherine Ponte, JD, MBA, CPRP
The holidays are synonymous with gift giving. Options are plentiful, and picking a gift often doesn’t involve much thought or effort, particularly when shopping online. That works for most people, but often not for gift recipients living with mental illness, especially when we’re symptomatic. For us, the best gifts show love, affection and thoughtfulness — it’s the thought that truly does matter.
Living with mental illness often entails a loss of pleasure in things that once made us happy. So, we may not like the same types of gifts we once did. That can make gift giving challenging for our friends and loved ones. Some of the gifts I most appreciated in the depths of my depression included gifts that were personalized, offered companionship, comforted and supported me, helped with self-care, helped distract from negative thoughts and helped me feel self-empowered. These gifts made me feel supported and needed and even more willing to communicate with my loved ones. The gifts of love truly keep on giving.
Here are a few gift options you might consider. Most of these gifts are easy to find, and the majority are inexpensive.
A simple handwritten letter or card that acknowledges the recipient’s courage and strength or their importance in your life can be a deeply meaningful gift. Other examples include: a photo frame engraved with your names, a family photo that invokes positive feelings of the past, a blanket embroidered with your names, gifts embellished with “I love you” statements, or a piece of engraved jewelry, such as a locket with meaningful photos.
Spending time together can be invaluable. I really like a gift certificate for time at a wellness spa with a loved one as it can offer physical and mental benefits. Tickets for a “quiet” day trip are also nice, such as a botanical garden or vineyard. I find shows and sporting events overstimulating, as do many others with mental illness, so make sure your loved one is okay with this type of activity before buying tickets. It’s sometimes best to buy the tickets and give them as a gift, rather than a promise to do something together, so that the plans don’t fall through.
Most people living with mental illness want to feel comforted when they’re sick. It’s one of the reasons we spend so much time in bed and on the couch. Gifts that make other spaces in the home more comfortable may help get your loved one out of their bed. When picking these “comforting” gifts, you may want to think of the five senses: touch, see, smell, hear and taste. They’re the basis of a popular grounding technique called “5-4-3-2-1,” which can ease anxiety and make people think of the present moment distracting them from negative thoughts.
Example of “touch” gifts can be sweatpants, sweatshirts, flannel shirts, fuzzy socks and blankets (weighted blankets may also ease anxiety).
Examples of “see” gifts may include a nice framed poster or other wall decoration. I really like artwork created by people living with mental illness, some of which you can find at the Fountain House Gallery. Other “see” gifts include easy to care for plants and mood lighting. A plant subscription or nice collection of succulents are great. In fact, interactions with indoor plants may reduce psychological stress.
A touch control table lamp with dimmable and multi-colored light settings offers nice adjustable lighting. A light therapy box may help people who experience seasonal depression, but you should check with your health care provider first. Blue light blocking computer glasses can also help aid sleep.
Examples of “smell” gifts include an essential oil diffuser with oils, such as lavender oil, which some studies have shown can ease anxiety, and scented candles.
Examples of “hear” gifts, include a white noise machine, which can aid sleep, and a nature sound player, which can help people relax.
Examples of “taste” gifts can include a nice water bottle and single portion snacks, including healthy options, such as nuts and cheese combos and also, favorite comfort “junk foods,” such as chocolate, cookies and chips.
There are various self-care gifts which may comfort and encourage personal hygiene, such as home spa products. A great gift, which no one ever gave me but I really wish they had, is a home cleaning service gift certificate. When you’re depressed, keeping house is not a top priority. Your clothes go unwashed, your kitchen sink overflows with dirty dishes. An untidy house can be adverse to our mental health. We may become embarrassed to have loved ones or friends visit, so we don’t accept help with cleaning when it is offered. However, we’re often not as bothered by having a stranger see our mess.
A healthy meal service which delivers frozen meals for the week is also great. When depressed, we can resort to unhealthy, easy-to-make supermarket frozen meals and other fast food options, such as take out. A few sessions with a gym trainer may encourage your loved one to start exercising. You may consider a gym membership, but your loved one might lack the motivation to go often. Virtual training sessions, especially yoga which may reduce depressive symptoms, are a good option as well. Small and moderate effort home exercise equipment, such as light barbells, yoga supplies or even a fitness manual, might encourage your loved one to try out a few exercises.
There are various activities that are good for your mental health, particularly those that distract people from depressive thoughts. Examples include: adult coloring books and markers, puzzles, gratitude journals, self-love books, easy to read picture books or a magazine subscription, especially those with nature or animal pictures, such as National Geographic. Notably, journaling has been shown to have mental health benefits.
Where a loved one is showing improved signs of activity and mood, self-empowerment gifts may add an extra boost. A great gift idea is autobiographies of people living with mental illness who have overcome struggles. As an example, Kay Jamison’s “An Unquiet Mind” is a great book idea for people with bipolar, but there are many others, too. It’s always good to check out a book first because you don’t want to give a book that might include triggering content, such as books that recount suicidal behavior. You can often find book reviews online. As concentration and motivation may sometimes be lacking, a book of essays is a good alternative as well. In this category, I recently published a book of short essays that inspires hope while offering practical guidance: “ForLikeMinds: Mental Illness Recovery Insights.”
Subscriptions to Netflix or other streaming services are great alternatives to watching regular TV. Be sure to include a list of inspirational series and movies about people living with mental illness, such as “A Beautiful Mind,” among others.
Educational gifts can also help someone living with mental illness engage and learn practical skills. Illness self-management and self-care books can offer skills to allow someone to take more responsibility for their illness. An online class in a subject of their interest is a very thoughtful gift, and completing a class can foster a sense of accomplishment.
Although not for everyone, religion and spirituality have been shown to significantly enhance mental well-being. Most faiths have their own prayer books and prayer objects. You might also consider an interfaith prayer book.
Finally, where possible, I would strongly encourage people to support businesses owned by people living with mental illness or businesses that support mental health non-profits. I like to research the companies that I buy from and prioritize those that support mental illness and other social causes. For example, I love to support NAMI by contributing a portion of my spending on Amazon to NAMI through Amazon’s AmazonSmile program.
These gifts are simple, easy to find and inexpensive, but aren’t necessarily the most obvious choices. To enhance presentation and add more personal touch, you can remove the packaging and price tags on gifts and assemble them into a “gift basket” tied with a nice big ribbon.
These gift options can make your loved one feel cared for and loved. The right gifts can have this power. They offer comfort to those that are sick, show that you understand what they are experiencing and what may make them feel better. The best gifts are from the heart. They bring loved ones closer together and keep giving long after the holidays.
Author’s note: Thank you, Mom and Dad for all your wonderful gifts and cards. The cards were always my favorite, embellished with sparkly stickers, XOs, and Dad’s funny drawings. I love that you continue to send me them now, once a week, even though I’m well. They make me feel your care, support and love even at a distance. They inspired me to create my Psych Ward Greeting Cards program, which has comforted well over a thousand patients. It is my most fulfilling time spent.
KATHERINE PONTE, BA, JD, MBA, CPRP, is a mental health advocate, writer, entrepreneur and lawyer. She has been living with severe bipolar I disorder with psychosis and extended periods of suicidal depression for 20 years. She is now happily living in recovery. Katherine is the Founder of ForLikeMinds, an online mental illness peer support community, and BipolarThriving: Bipolar Recovery Coaching and the Creator of Psych Ward Greeting Cards, which visits and distributes greeting cards to patients in psychiatric units. She is a member of the Board of NAMI New York City. Katherine is the author of ForLikeMinds: Mental Illness Recovery Insights and a monthly contributor to the NAMI National Blog. She also actively collaborates with the Program for Recovery and Community Health, Department of Psychiatry, School of Medicine, Yale University. A native of Toronto, Canada, Katherine calls New York City and the Catskills home. Her life’s mission is to share her hope and inspire others to believe that mental illness recovery is possible and help them reach it. In the two years since reaching full recovery and starting to share her story publicly, her work has reached over one million people.
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