I met with a friend this week who has bipolar disorder.
She asked if I would help her send a message to people about her challenges. She shared details about her manic episodes and bouts with depression. As we spoke, she said she was in a good place, her medication maintaining a balance.
But for some time, she has endured highs and lows. She talked about taking to the streets and waking up neighbors in the middle of the night during a manic high. She spoke of lying on the couch for days, unwilling to even shower during one of her lows.
"It's like riding a roller coaster," she said. "I try to laugh because laughter is the best medicine.
"But someone once said, 'Laughter is the best medicine unless there's no reason to be laughing. Then take your medicine.' "
She talked about the disorder's impact on her, her family and her friendships. Above all, she expressed a need for empathy: People should understand she has an illness, and some of them have disappointed her because they haven't offered that degree of understanding.
I responded by saying we — and I really meant "we" — don't understand how to respond. We don't like talking about it, we don't try to learn about it and we worry that trying to deal with it will lead to unintended consequences.
Clearly, mental health needs an infusion of awareness.
Dr. Mark Taylor, a Brandon psychiatrist, said people need to realize that if someone who is bipolar takes their medication, it really doesn't have to be an issue at all.
"If people became more informed, it would help a lot," Taylor said. "People have an idea that someone who is bipolar may look like they're possessed by a demon, but the reality is if you're out in public, you're probably surrounded by people who have this diagnosis and you just don't know it."
On its website, the National Institute of Mental Health suggests the following for people dealing with those who have bipolar disorder: Offer emotional support, understanding, patience and encouragement. (Don't we all need that?) Learn about bipolar disorder so you can understand what your friend is experiencing. Talk to them and listen carefully. Invite them out for positive distractions. Remind them that they can get better.
Given what my friend shared, I would add two more tips: Listen without judgment and don't diagnose. She's bothered when people roll their eyes or stare in silence, or suggest that because of a singular action she forgot take her medicine or she's being "bipolar again."
"People may feel someone is not trying hard enough, but it's biochemical, it's genetic," Taylor said. "People need therapy and support, but they also need medicine. You can't talk it away."
And my friend explained that it frustrates her when people with no medical training offer advice on how to get better by saying "snap out of it" or "trust God."
"I heard a comedian say it's like telling a person with vision problems, 'Take off your glasses, put it in God's hands and drive home,' " she said. "They say, 'Snap out of it,' like it's that easy."
Every affliction comes with challenges, but the stigma attached to mental health makes it all the more difficult.
As a society, we need to grow more cognizant about how mental health is impacting the community. It's no surprise that a group of mental health agencies will stage a political forum next week to raise awareness among candidates.
As friends and family members, we need to search for the courage to be more empathetic. It's not easy to identify with an illness that doesn't always exhibit visible symptoms. It's deceiving because for so long we've been told happiness is a choice.
But if we can find the courage to help, why not try? Everybody needs a friend.
That's all I'm saying.