This is a subject very close to my heart as I’ve watched people all of my life work harder to hide their struggles than they do to find an effective way to cope with them. And you don’t need to be a psychologist to know when a person hides their problems or issues, they usually turn to maladaptive ways to cope with them. You might be asking yourself, “Why wouldn’t people just go get help?” That’s a great question. And one that deserves an answer.
First, most individuals who struggle with their mental health simply don’t understand why it’s going on inside of them. It can be compared to a black hole that does its best to suck the sufferer in no matter how hard they try to fight it. And if they don’t understand it themselves, how are they supposed to verbalize to someone else, who may be able to help them, what they’re going through?
There is also, even in this day and age, a huge stigma placed on those who live with depression, anxiety (and there are many different branches), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and many other neurological and psychological diagnosis. Those who don’t understand these conditions, or take the time to, consider such disorders more as excuses for not being able to cope with life rather than serious issues. Such tunnel-vision assumptions only escalate feelings of isolation, loneliness and misunderstanding which can have serious, if not fatal, consequences.
So, how can we help? Here are some ideas:
- The first thing I have always practiced when I don’t understand something is to learn as much as I can. Go on the Internet, talk to experts, read books. In this age of being able to access information everywhere, there really is no excuse not to find answers.
- Realize that people who have mental struggles aren’t trying to get attention. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. They want to be able to live in our world to the best of their ability regardless of their inner struggles, without judgment or ridicule. Be as supportive as you can be.
- Truly listen when they trust you enough to reach out. This means to hear what they are saying with open ears and minds. You may not ‘get’ how they feel but you can still give them your shoulder when they’re not strong enough.
- Encourage every step they make forward, no matter how small. Knowing there is a cheering squad behind them, even when a few steps are taken back, helps elicit the inner strength to keep trying.
- Don’t try changing the individual to be who you believe they should be. Not only is that emphasizing the stigma they already face, but it also doesn’t inspire them to strive to become who they want to be. It’s hard enough living with something no one else can physically see yet still interferes with everyday life and being judged for it.
- Most importantly, accept the person as a whole. Mental illness is only a small part of who the person is. There are many other layers that should be given praise, highlighted or focused on. As with any other condition or special need, a person isn’t their mental health struggle but more a mere part of what makes them who they are.
I am no expert on this subject but I do have firsthand experience, both personally and professionally, advocating for those coping with mental health issues. Awareness campaigns, such as Mental Health Awareness Month, are phenomenal opportunities for others to research, learn, understand and reach out. I can tell you it truly makes a difference to take the time to give a voice to those who don’t feel theirs is strong enough. Remember that it takes a tremendous amount of strength and courage to ask for help. Why not be that person who reaches back by simply asking, “How are you…really?”
You may even save someone’s life who just needed to be asked.