The Blessing of COVID Depression: How to Speak to the Mentally Ill

The Pain of a Muted Love

People ask me, “rabbi Alfredo, how can I comfort my son who is struggling with schizophrenia?” “How can I bring balance to my wife’s uncontrolled mania?” “How do I uplift my depressed friend?”

While determined to offer love and relief, their lips remain frozen. What could they say as a loved one suffers a mental breakdown? What words could they utter without taking the risk of hurting an already troubled mind?  

Tempted to Say this? No Please

We know the well-intentioned clichés. “Be strong. Don’t worry. This pain should pass.” “Pull out of this! Use your will! It is all within your power!” “Fight! You are stronger than what you think.” “Don’t be so negative. Keep up the good spirit.” “No matter how you feel now, you have a long life waiting.” “This is not who you are. Next week you will forget all of this.” “Ride the pain and let it pass.” “Did you take your meds?” “Are you sleeping enough?” “You need a time out. Perhaps a vacation.” “We know a person who lives with this illness. In the end, he did Ok. You should too.” “You don’t deserve this.” “When this passes, promise me that you will take better care of yourself.”

If you feel tempted to use any of these statements, ask yourself: Is what I’m saying for my peace of mind, to make me feel helpful, or for the sake of the one I love?  

Three Kind Statements

Some other phrases are more benign. They could diminish the immediate pain. “We love you unconditionally. We will always be here for you.” “I will stay with you as long as you need.” “My friendship and love for you are unconditional.” They all emphasize the act of being present.

“I Admire You”

I would like to suggest some missing words that, I believe, could transform the lives of our struggling loved ones. First, wait until the storm has passed. Then, invite that person you love for coffee or a walk. Choose a quiet place of intimacy.

Look directly in his eyes and, with a tender voice, say: “I have never told you that I admire you. I admire your resilience, courage, stamina, and hope. You are a role model for me.”  

After that confession, wait a few seconds and add, “you have overcome situations few have experienced. Please, share with me: what have you learned from them? What wisdom has your struggle taught you? What’s the source of your strength? How can we endure darkness? How can we show genuine gratitude?  

Our gift to our loved ones is to offer them the chance to infuse meaning into their chaotic journey. We must reassure them that their seemingly empty experiences are pregnant with wisdom.  

Thank You COVID!

The myopia of stigma has eclipsed the precious wisdom those with mental illness have to offer. But COVID should have changed America’s mind about mental health. Millions of Americans still battle the “COVID depression.” They have experienced the fragility of life. Depression, they now know, is not a character flaw or the product of a weak mind. A new era of empathy and respect for the mentally ill should sweep the country. Chronic depression, like other mental illnesses, should now be associated with courage, wisdom, and resilience.   

How do we talk to the mentally ill? In the same manner, you would approach a master of wisdom. As if facing a life sage.

Bipolar! Please be my Life Coach  

Look for the right moment. Be humble and tell your OCD, Bipolar, or Depressed loved one: “I acknowledge your pain. I would like you to be my teacher. Teach me about life. The good and the ugly. The pain and the redemption. The fear and the strength. Be my mentor. I want to learn from you.

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