It is in our innate nature to look out for and care for one another. We hold doors open for others, pick up something they’ve dropped, give directions when someone is lost, give up our seat on public transport for someone less able than us. These gestures are part of everyday life and are some of the ways that we extend kindness to strangers. If we have manners that is. And when those who are closest to us are feeling under the weather we let them know we’re there for them. We send flowers and cards, we visit them in hospital, we do any odd jobs that can help them out. We naturally want to help each other out. Unless you’re a miserable bastard. But how do you help someone out when it’s not visible that they are in need?
The thing is with all the gestures above is that they’re natural reactions to a situation when it plays out in front of us. You wouldn’t begrudge a pregnant woman a seat on the tube or stand there as an elderly man struggles to get up after having a nasty fall. Society tells us how we should react to such events. But what we haven’t been taught to do is help people out when the matter in hand isn’t visual, but mental. There’s no social protocol for helping someone out with mental illness.
Helping someone through a tough time isn’t easy, because we can’t see what’s wrong. Half the time it’s like walking through a mine field; tiptoeing around, not wanting to set off any explosions. The societal stigma surrounding conditions like depression doesn’t help either. The whole “keep calm and carry on” mentality Britain is plagued with means that when someone suddenly can’t function our initial reaction is that they’re being awkward, melodramatic or just attention-seeking, rather than think about what the real reason might be as to why they aren’t being themselves.
Also as the problem is linked to emotions, we all react differently. There isn’t a set way of helping someone out, we can’t fashion up a “one size fits all” social protocol like we can with what to do when someone is off work sick or has dropped their wallet. What may seem like the perfect way to deal with something for you, may offend or upset your best friend.
So here’s a little guide to make reaching out to those in need a little easier. It’s not extensive and these aren’t definite solutions, but for those of you that don’t suffer from such conditions it may give you a better understanding of what your loved ones are going through. When you understand something you’re more likely to find the right solution. Here’s some tips on what to do when a friend of family member isn’t feeling their self.
They’ll be days when your friend or family member is their normal self, seemingly carefree and the life and soul of the party, then the next they could be physically unable to get out of bed and be extremely introverted and emotional. There is no set behaviour for dealing with mental health issues, so don’t try to look out for the stereotype of someone who is constantly quiet and moody. Some people like to act like everything is fine, whereas this is impossible for others. My own personal experiences are a prime example of this. In my earlier bouts of depression I’d prefer to carry on like normal. It would seem like nothing was wrong. I’d make jokes, join in with everyone and appear seemingly upbeat. It was only when I was alone at night that the true misery would seep out in the form of tears on the pillow. This is still a tactic I use today, especially when I’m home for the holidays, as I don’t want to burden anyone so commonly cry myself to sleep if I’m not feeling great. It was only recently,after dealing with crippling grief, that I accepted defeat some days and stayed in bed.
What I’m trying to say is let them ride it out, however bumpy that ride may be. Try not to take it personally when they suddenly snap or don’t turn up to an event they promised they’d come through. I assure you it isn’t personal. Depression and anxiety are like the shittiest form of metamorphosis ever. No pretty butterflies here. You can feel your mind changing, your mood is out of sync, your reactions don’t make sense and you feel totally out of control of your own body; like you’ve been given the keys to a car you’ve never driven before and are expected to drive it. They will eventually come to terms with it, but you’ll just have to accept that there’ll be times when being “normal” is just impossible.
When you’re feeling low, it’s easy to convince yourself you’re not worth bothering about. A simple gesture, such as a text or a phone call, or an invite for coffee can be enough to make that person feel loved and temporarily boost their mood. Feeling connected and cared for boosts self worth and will lesson suicidal feelings. Make an effort to check in with them regularly, even if your invites are rejected, persist. Sometimes people push the people they love away because they feel they don’t deserve them. Persisting will show them you truly are there and care.
One of the main problems when you’re suffering from mental health issues is that you don’t feel normal. You become increasingly introspective and are convinced that everyone around you is having a grand old time, while your life becomes a living nightmare. Like I said above our natural reaction is to help people out and find the solution to their problem, so it’s totally normal to want to suggest a solution when our loved ones are having a rough time. The problem is that here the pragmatic approach doesn’t really help. Trying to find a “quick fix” solution or sugar coat the situation makes those suffering from mental health feel a bit fobbed out, as if you want to skip over their problems. They don’t necessarily want help but an understanding and support. Think of it this way. If someone was depressed after losing a loved one you wouldn’t suggest creating an action plan to get over grief or say “it will be all right in the end.” You’d apologise for their loss, and let them know that you’re there for them. You have to act the same way with mental health. I find if I can’t find anything to say I just say “Oh sweetie. That’s shit. I’m so sorry.” They will appreciate your honesty. I then give them a huge hug and make them a brew if a kettle is in close vicinity.
Brits bloody love apologising. We suffer from apology tourettes. It’s an involuntary impulse like sneezing or clapping at that bit in the “friends” theme tune. The problem is that whenever we show emotion, rant or open up about what’s bothering us we feel the need to apologize. “Sorry, I don’t mean to bother you with this.” “Sorry, I hate crying around people.” “I don’t mean to bring the mood down.” Sound familiar? When we say things like this it’s because of the whole stigma surrounding mental health. We feel it’s bad social behaviour to show our vulnerable side. But it’s not. We have a rule in our student house to never apologise for feeling low or showing emotion. When my flatmates apologise for “bothering me” with their emotional stuff, I never acccept it. Instead I say “there is no need to apologise sweetie. It’s perfectly fine to act this way.” And then make them a brew. You’ll see that tea making features heavily.
Everyone is different. Some people, like me, love a good rant and venting is as essential as something like breathing. Ok maybe not that vital, but it’s important to help them cope. Others can’t put their feelings into words and would rather act like nothing is going on. This is merely another way of coming to terms with things. Both are natural, so make it clear, that you’re there if they want to talk about it, but also if they don’t.
There may be times when you have to adapt your plans with them, as their mood has suddenly turned or simple things like getting out of the house have become too much. My friends are fabulous at this when I’m not myself and let me dictate where we meet, whether it’s in public or at my or a friend’s house. When I became increasingly agoraphobic before Christmas they came over to me so I didn’t have to stress about leaving the house. Showing that you want to hang out whatever their conditions will have an enormous impact on their self esteem.
There will be times when you hear nothing for days or weeks. It’s normal. We all need space. Sometimes a non-commitive text saying you’re thinking of them and are there should they need you is enough to make them feel better. You may not get a reply, but they will get your gesture and appreciate it.
Told you. Small, simple gestures can have a huge impact. When I heard the news that my granddad had passed my house mate’s reaction was to make me sweet hot tea for the shock. I appreciated it so much and I don’t normally drink normal tea! Sometimes the smallest acts of self care when you can’t look after yourself mean so much.
Some people want to seek help from counselling or other services, some want to battle it on their own. If your loved one wants help, make it clear that you’ll help them get it if they want it, but don’t bombard them and keep asking if they’ve got it yet. It will make them feel like there is something seriously wrong with them, and may feel overwhelmed. A lot of people prefer to just go do it on their own. When I first got counselling in college I didn’t dare tell a soul, as I was so scared what people would think of me (again society’s view on mental health). Everyone’s different.
Mental health issues are tough for the sufferer and everyone close. They’re a battle that is a marathon rather than a sprint. They’ll be setbacks, inconsistency and a lot of days when you don’t know what to do any more. They’ll be times when you feel it’s a personal attack on you ( it’s not I promise), but if you make it clear that whatever they throw at you you’ll be there, they’ll eventually pull through.
What advice would you give someone helping someone with mental health? If you know someone suffering what would you like to tell them? Comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic or feel free to drop me a message on twitter or Facebook.
Until next time lovelies