By Katherine Ponte, JD, MBA, CPRP
Saying the right thing to someone struggling with mental illness can be incredibly powerful. It can support, comfort, encourage and sometimes even save a life. The problem is finding the words. Too many people don’t know what to say to us, so they say nothing at all. Some people may worry about upsetting us. They don’t know how to act in this often unfamiliar or uncomfortable situation. Some may simply not want to get involved.
Not acting can have significant consequences. Silence can make us feel hopeless, sad and alone. At its worst, we may think that others do not care or love us. This is especially true when our struggles are greatest — when we’re hospitalized. This was my experience during my three hospitalizations for manic episodes. Like many others, I received minimal support from my family while in the hospital. Much time has passed, but I’ve never fully healed from these experiences.
This alienation is far less common for people hospitalized for a physical illness. For them, there are get well cards, flowers, balloons, teddy bears and sometimes even visitors overflowing from hospital rooms. They receive expressions of friendship, sympathy, comfort and support.
It should be the same for those hospitalized for mental illness. We should be treated no differently, but we are. A lack of acknowledgment or reassurance from others leaves us to dwell on “why?” We may believe it’s because we are to blame for our own condition. Silence breeds uncertainty.
Having personally experienced the pain of being a psychiatric patient, I created Psych Ward Greeting Cards, a program that visits and shares donated greeting cards with psychiatric patients. The messages can be very uplifting to recipients with expressions of hope, empathy, compassion, support, reassurance and recovery. The responses, especially from card recipients, to this small gesture have been deeply moving. They reinforce why I do this — I want my peers to know that people care about them, even strangers. I want them to know that they are not alone.
I know the power that the right heartfelt sentiment can have. I also know that it can be hard to find the right words. So, as an example, I am sharing my letter below to people struggling with mental illness. I hope my peers will read this message and know that it comes from the heart, from someone who understands their struggles. I hope that those who support someone with mental illness, but might need a little help with what to say, share it with their loved one, too. Let them know it comes from a peer who cares, who gets it, who wants to see them well.
I know that things may be hard right now. You may be feeling hopeless, sad, lonely or isolated. But you do have reason to hope. We always do. Mental illness blinds us to this reality. You may think that nobody could understand what you’re going through. But many do because they have been there, too. I can.
I have suffered from mental illness for a long time. I know how hard it can be. I also know that treatment can work and recovery is possible. First, you may need to come to terms with a few things. You are not a burden. Your loved ones will not leave you. You are not to blame for your illness. It was not anything you did or said. Mental illness happens to a lot of us.
We are beautiful people, kind and empathetic. It’s true, certainly no less than everyone else. And you are brave and courageous. Many people admire you. You should be proud to live with mental illness day-by-day. It is an achievement. You must believe that you are strong. You are. Mental illness may have made you stronger than most.
But still, there is stigma. It can really hurt. It says terrible, awful things about us. It holds us back, but it doesn’t realize how resilient we are. Stigma lies. Don’t believe any of it. Stigma is a bully. Stand up and it will shrink. You must listen to what you know is true deep down within you, not a bully’s empty bluster. I know you know the truth about you. A lot of people do.
You deserve so much more than being sick. You deserve to live a life full of happiness. You have dreams to pursue, and you can reach them. To do this, you have to believe in yourself. You have to love yourself to know that you’re worthy of more. Believe in hope. It is all around you. If you cannot find your own hope, find hope in your loved ones. There are so many people who know you can and will get better, including your peers. We believe in you.
Please believe me when I tell you that today is not your forever.
But only you can change your life for the better. You have to take responsibility for your condition, find the best treatment, be adherent, ask for and accept help, listen to good advice from those who love you. Take care of yourself with sleep, diet and exercise. Find out what gives you meaning and purpose in your life — a career, good relationships, happiness — and pursue it.
Recovery can be hard to reach. It was for me. But the rewards are great. You may make mistakes, experience setbacks and disappointments, and get discouraged. We all do. But that’s all part of the journey. Recovery is not a straight path. You must never give up. Every step will make you stronger and stronger.
It’s really just a matter of time before you reach recovery, but you need to be patient and cautious. Even if you’ve been suffering for a long time, you can still get better. Be inspired by your peers. I struggled for a long time but I reached recovery. Many people living with mental illness have, and you can, too.
Much better days lie ahead for you. Love yourself. Know that you are loved, worthy, deserving and capable. You’ve got what it takes. We’re all rooting for you and need you. We’ll be with you every step of the way, in our thoughts and hearts. We believe in you. You have to believe in you, too.
Love, your friend, your peer, Katherine
Katherine Ponte is happily living in recovery from severe bipolar I disorder. She’s the Founder of ForLikeMinds’ mental illness peer support community, BipolarThriving: Recovery Coaching and Psych Ward Greeting Cards. Katherine is also a faculty member of the Yale University Program for Recovery and Community Health and has authored ForLikeMinds: Mental Illness Recovery Insights.
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