Talk About Mental Health
By Melanie Medland
When someone tells you they have depression or anxiety, what do you say?
Despite the number of ‘I am hope’ Facebook statuses, many people are still simply unprepared for a vulnerable share; a share that lets the recipient know that the sharer is not the best. The immediate default responses seem to be:
- You’ll be right
- It’ll be okay
- Cheer up
I would like to think people trot out these three responses simply because they don’t know what else to say. That’s 100% understandable, and if you find yourself in that category then give yourself some grace. We are human after all and we stuff up from time to time.
Why are these responses not helpful?
Responses like this simply invalidate the suffering that comes with depression and anxiety. People who suffer from these illnesses do not choose to have them. Given a choice, most sufferers would gladly trade their anxiety and depression for a broken arm or leg. Physical ailments, while painful and inconvenient, are also fixable and come with a “You’ll be better by date” which is usually 99% accurate.
The responses of “You’ll be right” and “It’ll be okay” don’t help for people with mental illness. They don’t do anything because the person speaking them can’t possibly know whether the words they are speaking are true. To a sufferer these responses are unhelpful and off putting. Although the intention may be right, these phrases certainly don’t exude kindness, compassion or empathy in any way.
And “Cheer up” is the wrong response. Top of the “hopefully” list for a mental health suffer is the wish to cheer up. If they could, they would. The “cheering up wish” makes suffers feel worse because cheering up will have been something they’ve been trying very, very hard to do and it reinforces that there must be something wrong with them if they can’t simply ‘cheer up’.
But wait! There is more.
Other common responses demonstrate even less understanding.
- You don’t look sick.
- What do you have to be depressed about?
- Get over it.
- Harden up.
These come across as ‘put down’ responses and are not very helpful. They effectively close off any chance of a connection or a conversation that could be constructive or useful. Some people may feel that depression and anxiety are a cop out, but the reality is that they are not.
You’re probably wondering about what the best thing to say is!
The best thing to say is simply “That really sucks.” or “Bummer.” Or “That’s no good.” Say something empathetic. Then, if appropriate, give them a good hug.
While you’re doing that, imagine that the same person is standing in front of you with a really obvious physical injury, for example with a broken arm. Think about how you would respond to that. You might naturally ask “How did that happen?” and “What did you do about it?” People expect you to be curious about a physical injury. It’s almost rude not to be.
If someone has taken the time to share about a mental illness then please be absolutely curious about that too. Instead of asking the “How did that happen?” question, a better way to phrase it would be “Did this happen suddenly?” Or “has it been creeping up for a while?” The suffer may be able to identify a tipping point. It might simply be a combination of events that has led them to where they are now.
The next most important question is “What are you doing about it?” Be prepared to listen to the persons responses. Please don’t offer suggestions though such as “Have you tried ….” If they have and it hasn’t worked for them or it doesn’t appeal to them, making suggestions can make the person feel worse. So just listen. Ask how those things are working for them; congratulate them for taking steps to help themselves. Be positive.
Another important question is “How can I help?” The person might not know the answer to that question, and that’s ok. Walk away from that conversation being curious about what you can do to help – a regular weekly phone call? A call to someone else they know, tipping them off to help out? A chance to turn up with a home cooked meal? Or to take their child out for a walk? It’s different for different people, but know that help given without it being asked for is the gold medal for people who are struggling.
Never believe a sufferer when they say “We’re okay/fine thanks.” Don’t take anything personally and keep on being there for them. Speaking from experience, I know I had friends who I would tell “Yes, I know, I promise I’ll ring” when I knew well I wouldn’t. I was also blessed with friends who turned up unexpectedly to see how my day was, or to drop off an excess of fruit from their garden, or arrived with 2 coffees and a store brought cake to share. Those little acts of kindness were the ones that truly made all the difference.
Is there an elephant in the room?
At this point I’m going to add that, if your intuition is telling you to ask them “Have you been thinking about killing yourself?” then please, go ahead and ask. Call it – surface it. If the person says “Yes”, continue the conversation. Ask them if they have a plan and means to kill themselves. If they have the means. I’m going to be really blunt here! I am going to point out that if you get this type of information from another person don’t just sit on it. Even if they ask you to keep it secret, don’t! Figure something out.
Sharing about depression and anxiety is hard
It takes true courage and vulnerability to share a struggle that carries a very real risk of judgement. To not share is to let the secrecy dictate the idea that there is something very wrong with you; and something very shameful about you that has caused you to have depression and anxiety. We all know this is simply not true. The more we share about mental health struggles, the more we break down the shame barrier. Through this we teach others , who have been fortunate so far to have not been touched by the reach of these debilitating illnesses, understanding and compassion.
For those people who are lucky enough to have someone who trusts them enough to reach out and share, Socrates said it best;
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
If you are ever in the position of being trusted with the honest assessment of another person’s state of mental health, take a second to walk in their shoes. Start the conversation amd listen to what they say.
This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.
I’m passionate about changing conversations around mental health. As far as I’m concerned being depressed should be a valid reason to ring in sick to work and mental health days should be responded to as “how can I help days” by bosses. Nobody should ever be made to feel ashamed for having a struggle with a mental illness.
For more information about coaching support services, check out my website: www.movingthrough.net
Or find me on facebook @MovingThroughwithMelanie