NYT Best-Selling Author Jennifer Niven on Helping People With Mental Illness

Mental illness is not a joke. A lot of people may have said that already, but it’s something worth reiterating, especially with the continued stigma surrounding it despite several resources that depict and explain it.

Some time last year, a friend recommended the book All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (which is a New York Times best-seller, BTW). It became an instant favorite because it takes the readers into the mind of someone who is suffering from an undiagnosed bipolar disorder and depression, as well as how it affects the people around him. It was something different (for me) and doesn’t romanticize or belittle it.

And coincidentally, on Mental Health Awareness Month, Jennifer landed on our shores to do a series of book signings.

“I was inspired by a boy I loved years ago and I always wanted to write about this story of knowing him and our romance but I wasn’t really sure if I could,” she shares. She continues on to say that the book’s protagonists, Finch and Violet, and their experiences in the story are somehow connected to her relationship with the said boy.

“The boy I loved had depression and was also bipolar. And Finch is suffering from bipolar, undiagnosed, so he doesn’t really know why he’s having these extreme moods. Depression is definitely also a part of it too,” she tells me. “Finch to me is, as he would say, not a label. He’s not just an illness, I don’t see him as that. I see him as this wonderful boy who’s struggling with these things. So, I really wanted to depict depression and bipolar as honestly and realistically as possible [with the help of] experts and people who are going through it.”

During the 15 minutes we spent talking, I picked up six lessons on helping them realize that it’s not shameful or embarrassing to admit that something’s wrong.

#1 Pay close attention
Since this is something that we can’t really see and sometimes mistake as something other than a (possible) mental illness, Jennifer advises that we should tune into what we or another person is feeling to know what’s up and know what we can do. “I think we can, in general, pay better attention to people,” Jennifer advises. “Sometimes we miss signals and signs that we should be tuned into.”

#2 Let them know that you’re listening
Jennifer shares that since releasing the book, she’s had people come up to her and said that they gained courage to tell their friends and family that they need help. “I felt surprised at how many people are struggling in silence. I didn’t know so many people were suffering,” she says, adding the importance of listening to them when they speak up about their issues.

#3 Slowly encourage them to open up
In the book, Finch didn’t divulge every bit of information about himself to Violet, which was why she didn’t have a solid clue what was going on with him. Jennifer notes that opening up to people and letting them be there for you, at the same time being open to help as well, would do so much. “Bottomline is, you have to let someone in,” she says.

#4 Be aware that a smile doesn’t necessarily mean it’s okay
Almost everyone is guilty of doing this regardless of whether they have an illness or not. Jennifer relates that dismissing negative feelings with a smile and saying that it’s fine will only let the feelings get worse over time. “I was always kind of like Violet who would tend to smile and say it’s fine when something bad is happening,” she tells me. “I remember my mom told me one time, ‘I’m your mother. You try to care for yourself and say everything’s fine, but you have to let me be there for you, too. That’s my right as your mother and as someone who loves you.'”

#5 Don’t always say ‘everything will be alright’
“It’s very dangerous,” Jennifer emphasizes. “Also telling people that everything’s going to be fine and that they can keep taking it, then continue being a horrible person to them.” Avoiding this attitude can lessen the stigma around these people, at the same time teach us not to be this way. Jennifer adds that the easiest solution is simply being kind to the people you encounter. “It’s always better to have been kind and respectful. I feel like it’s easier. And personally, I think it takes so much more energy to be negative,” she says, adding that they should feel accepted and not ostracized.

#6 Help them find good counseling
It’s true that not everyone may have the resources to get counseling. However, Jennifer shares that with the help of extensive studies and the Internet, we can recommend counseling resources for free. “There are a lot of sites out there. I also have links on my website if ever anyone needs them,” she adds.


Photo courtesy of Jennifer Niven’s Instagram


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Jacqueline Arias: