A Guide to Support Mental ‘Whale-ness’
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A Guide to Support Mental ‘Whale-ness’

A self-advocate shares how to support friends and family with mental illness.

Sharon Rosenblatt is an accessibility professional and advocate working to improve the overall web experience by a user with disabilities. With her tendency to be ‘hands on’, Sharon feels that accessibility is a human right, and not a ‘nice to have’. She has been a part of the Accessibility Partners team for the past six years, and specializes in document remediation and web/softwarecompliance testing. Her efforts have enabled developers and manufacturers to see the tremendous potential that accessibility has not just for users with disabilities, but of all abilities.

Sharon Rosenblatt
Sharon Rosenblatt

I have not been the most compliant person, whether to my therapist, my psychiatrist, or my family and friend supports. I have lied, cried, and made excuses for my behavior. Finally, a therapist shared some sage advice that forced me to radically accept my present and prioritize future wellness. She said: “You’re the common denominator, so work on changing you.” A friend alternatively translated as, “If things always stink around you, try looking under your own shoe first.” Granted, my friend may have used a profanity that isn’t fit for this publication. But, he’s also the friend who drove 50 miles to an emergency room after my airport panic attack and took me to dinner with no judgment.

I think about Jonah when people ask me for advice about how to support friends and family with mental illness. You can be the most wonderful person, you could even be God, and guess what, they still may not want to listen. Like Jonah, you’ll tell us to do one thing and they will just run away. If asking us to go to Ninevah is a reminder to take medication, then we’ll probably go to Tarshish. You know what’s more fun than talking in group therapy? Being on any other ship except the one you want me on.

But persistence is key. Assuming it is safe for you, keep being present in their lives. Sure, there’s a fine line between support and nag (a lesson to all Jewish mothers everywhere), but my comrades in diagnosis have universally said that feeling alone is worse. Secretly, we love knowing that people look out for us because it gives us another reason to hold on in this world.

It’d be great if this blog ended here, but if you’ve heard the Book of Jonah read on a hungry Yom Kippur afternoon, you know there’s more. “[Jonah!] “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.” (Jonah 1:6). In the moment of realization when Jonah determines his actions have caused destruction to those around him, hearing the captain’s voice causes a shift. Jonah assumes responsibility by throwing himself overboard to calm the seas.

Not the best literal advice for this blog, but the notion of personal accountability is paramount to a person wanting to improve their mental health. A positive friend, family member, therapist, or doctor can talk to an individual all day with the right words and medications, but they are not effective until the individual plunges toward a commitment to wellness.

Personal responsibility absolutely does not suggest an individual is responsible for their diagnosis. But, to some degree, they are responsible for their path to wellness. When you’re thrust overboard and swallowed by a giant fish, things don’t get better immediately. Acceptance often means an in-patient hospital stay, medications with awful side effects, talk therapy about difficult subjects, financial burdens, and stigma. But what does Jonah do inside that whale? He talks about his current situation, accepts his present and future, and chooses to live better. God spares him.

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re a friend or family member of someone who was just metaphorically been vomited by a whale onto dry land. Congratulations, you’re the sand beneath someone’s toes. This will not be a day at the beach, but you will make someone’s storm less intense.

My suggestions for support: patience and persistence. Be present in a non-judgmental way. Does your sister not want to talk? Perhaps a text will show you care, and offer to check in at another time. Sometimes, just sitting and watching television is the normalcy someone in crisis needs. Color. Knit. Smell flowers together. Be creative: nobody expects a superhero who will fix problems instantly.

Jonah is a prime example why persistence is necessary: after he goes to Ninevah and the city is spared from God’s wrath, Jonah is resistant again. Being swallowed by a fish one day may not work as well the next, which is evidenced when God kills a plant. Perhaps your strategy now is to go for a walk with your sibling, but tomorrow he doesn’t want to talk. Keep trying. Pity and boundaries may be necessary at first, but ultimately, the sense of otherness is what is most devastating for someone one a mental health crisis.

Keep a few resources available, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) as well as National Alliance on Mental Illness. You may need to look up specialized providers, like the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network or SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline, 1-877-SAMHSA7 (1-877-726-4727), or 911. It’s not your responsibility to be a large whale, but you can help someone get well.

Sharon Rosenblatt is an accessibility professional and advocate working to improve the overall web experience by a user with disabilities. With her tendency to be ‘hands on’, Sharon feels that accessibility is a human right, and not a ‘nice to have’. She has been a part of the Accessibility Partners team for the past six years, and specializes in document remediation and web/softwarecompliance testing. Her efforts have enabled developers and manufacturers to see the tremendous potential that accessibility has not just for users with disabilities, but of all abilities.

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