Life is harder now that it ever was. We, as humans, have made progress in many a fields, but certain important areas of our lives have become more murkier and confusing. Just yesterday, when I was reading through Cosmopolitan’s March issue, I wondered if I should be buying magazines to begin with. What is the real cost of this magazine? Have I caused trees to die and toxic gases to further weaken ozone, or is the paper recycled? And if I don’t buy it, what happens to the livelihood of thousands of people who work as journalists, editors, designers, photographers, printers, distributors and bookstore owners? Who do I choose to stand with – trees or people? This is just one of the many confusions I find myself dealing with on a daily basis. Sometimes, I do wish for ignorance as that sure comes along a certain level of peace of mind. But then, where would we be headed if all enjoyed blissful ignorance?

This stream of knowledge has also made ways for people to voice their feelings and label their emotions. It has single handedly pushed mental health awareness to the forefront of medical developments, helping thousands (if not millions) to understand what is ailing them, and seek help accordingly.

Unfortunately, while the former has become easier, the latter is still a taboo and only talked about in hushed tones. We know the symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, paranoia and anxiety – education and discussion about them are on the rise, but seeking help and resolution for those suffering is yet to catch up. Even more neglected is the education for those who are close to the ones suffering. In fact, they are not even part of the conversation, which I feel is a major problem, primarily because the support of those around is paramount to full recovery of a person dealing with mental illness(es).

Someone very close to me had been suffering from depression. It was a dark period, where everything would just go down south. Circumstances kept on pulling her under, as soon as clawed her way up and resurfaced. And while she tried to push through, one evening she confessed that she has had suicidal thoughts. “Is it all worth it? What is worth all this?,” she asked me.

I have read through tons of stories about people suffering from depression, how they regained peace after a long battle and the role their families and friends played, yet I was not prepared for this. For someone in my life to struggle with it, and get to the very end, the darkest corner, where suicide appears as relief… how do I help her? Where do I begin? What do I say? What do I not say? How do I be there with 5,000 miles between us?

I am ashamed to admit this but I recoiled. I retraced my steps just enough to have a fleeting, superficial contact. I checked up on her every day, praying that she doesn’t divulge anymore than I could handle. I wanted to be there but it was like walking on eggshells. How can I be sure that whatever I say is not a trigger? And more importantly, how do I be there with oceans between us? Is virtual support actually enough?

First thing I learnt was that it isn’t. Virtual support is not enough when the person is at the end of the tunnel of dismay and/or the supporter is weak. When you need to support someone who’s struggling with a mental health issue, like depression, proximity is crucial. The simple problem with virtual support is that you can choose to stop receiving it when you want. You can simply mute your supporter’s messages and calls, and that is the end of it. When you are physically together, say in a car or at a restaurant, you don’t necessarily need to talk. Just the fact that you are there with them makes all the difference. To hug and lend a shoulder to cry on. In fact, maybe talking isn’t all that helpful to begin with. Hashing out problems and listing down solutions can be step 4 and 5, but first three require helping the sufferer find a stable ground underneath their feet. Hence, long distance talking may not be all that helpful, unless the person is keen on talking and voicing their feelings. In another situation, where a friend was rather vocal about her feelings (she processed them solely by saying out everything she felt aloud), talking helped, despite the distance. So, if the person isn’t particularly vocal to begin with, talking incessantly and offering long distance support may not be enough to help someone through.

I also realised that I am emotionally not strong enough to take on another person’s wellbeing entirely. It seemed to crush me under its weight. It suffocated me. I needed an out. I was more likely to get sucked in with them than help them through. It could possibly be because of my own rough patch that I was going through back then, as well as my emotional immaturity, but it is a fact and it played a damning role in the kind of support I could offer. I learnt that I needed to first strengthen my own emotional core. Be rooted enough to shoulder a burden like that. When a person confides in you that they are suicidal, you have no way of knowing whether they mean it or not. Many many people think about ending their lives to escape whatever hell they are caught it, and a few actually go through with it as well. But you can’t risk assuming that the other person won’t go through with it; in fact, you MUST believe that they will, and act accordingly. In retrospect, I am most ashamed of my own reaction and shook by the thought of what could have happened. Fortunately, things got better and she’s back on firm ground.

Things got better, for her and me, but something broke in the dark times. Something changed irrevocably. It’s like from opposite and attracting poles, we became the same and started repelling. Even though things got better, egg shells became a permanent fixture. A broken emotional connection replaced whatever we had. I wonder if two people truly ever recover from an episode like this – where one’s emotions overwhelms the other, and intangible distance replaces closeness. How does something like this work between couples? Can mental health break apart relationships? The answer, sadly, is yes. It can break homes, relationships and hearts. Even sadder is the fact that it is no one’s fault.

The conversation around mental health needs to expand and include guidelines for people offering support systems as well. How to best help someone suffering, without unravelling yourself – now that’s something I would love to read.

Lastly, I understand that anyone suffering from depression and anxiety isn’t themselves during a rough patch, but suicide is a big deal, and throwing around the desire to end life in a regular conversation wrecks havoc. When someone says something like this to another person, they unknowingly dump a truckload of responsibility on that person. My first thought was what would I do if they decide to jump off the cliff (excuse the pun) – I don’t even have a number to call to inform her loved ones. In their darkness, they sometimes get blinded to misery that they have caused. In an ideal world, I’d request people suffering to be rational about what they say about life and death during rough nights, but mental illnesses wouldn’t really exist in such a world now, would they?

I don’t blame a sufferer. They are suffering. If they were able to see and think clearly, they would fix the issues themselves. But they can’t, and I need to acknowledge that. The only way to handle this, in my opinion, is to engage a professional. A therapist. They are equipped with the required strength, emotional stability and knowledge to help a person in their times of need. They can maintain the distance yet offer support and clarity. No one should mistake family and friends for therapists. We don’t ask our friend to operate when diagnosed with ovarian cancer, right? Similarly, an illness needs a professional. When you see a loved one suffering, be there but also try to get them to seek help from a therapist. This is the best way for them and you, to get through it without permanent damages.