For so long the topic of mental health has been one that people just don’t talk about. 46.4% of adults in the US suffer from mental illness in their lifetime – that’s almost half of the adult population. We need to talk about it. We’ve finally made some breakthroughs in recent years to bring more awareness to the subject, but we still have room to grow.
My mental health journey started at age 11.
I began experiencing symptoms of General Anxiety Disorder, and it’s still something I face every day. Admittedly, some days are great; others, however, I’m terrified to go anywhere because, “What if I have a panic attack and have to explain to people why I abruptly had to leave?” It’s hard. It’s exhausting. It’s difficult to explain to others.
This post isn’t to explain to you why or how you should manage your mental illness. (Which is a conversation worth pursuing if you’re struggling to maintain your mental health.) Instead, I’m speaking to all of the friends, family, and co-workers who don’t have a mental illness themselves but know someone who does.
This is so important because even my husband didn’t fully understand my anxiety for a long period of time. I’m not saying he didn’t try, just that it’s a difficult subject matter to understand. His love for me made it extremely difficult for him to see me suffering and not know what to do.
Eventually, after I discussed what my triggers were and going through many panic attacks in front of him, he began to truly understand. He now knows when I’m on the verge of having a panic attack and what situations to avoid when I’m having an overly anxious day.
Knowing that 46.4% of the US adult population experiences and suffers from mental health symptoms, I’m going to share with you a list of behaviors and actions that I’ve found most helpful from the people that mean the most to me. The things on this list have helped me feel heard, seen, valued, and most of all loved. Here we go!
Listen without an agenda
Working for a coaching company you soon realized that active listening is a really hard task. Active listening is defined as, “the ability to focus completely on what an individual is saying and is not saying, to understand the meaning of what is said in the context of that individual’s challenges and desires, and to support individual self-expression.”
All that said, when someone explains their mental illness to you, take the time to truly listen. Know that when they confide in you it means they trust you. As they are speaking, instead of responding with phrases like “oh, everyone gets depressed” or “just breathe,” try saying “Whatever you need, I’m here for you.” Understand that they probably aren’t looking for advice or commentary at that moment, just someone to listen to what they have to say without judgment. There will be plenty of times later on to give your input, advice and to ask questions.
Once you have listened to what your friend, relative, or co-worker has to say, take time to process and understand. Depending on your relationship with the person, ask questions about the parts that don’t make sense to you, but also understand that there are things that happen to them that they might not understand themselves. Reassure them that if they are uncomfortable talking about it in more detail than they already have, that they are not obligated to do so and move on to a different topic.
Asking questions like:
- “How can I help?”
- “I want you to feel as comfortable as possible when we are together. Are there topics/places that are triggering and we should avoid?”
- “What helps you on the days that you aren’t feeling well?”
These questions will show them that you are making an effort to be there when they need you. Once you know what they are going through, try your best to not make them feel bad for canceling plans, leaving a triggering situation, or not being themselves some days. That in itself will help them more than you know.
Be observant and react accordingly
When you begin to learn the warning signs and know their triggers, be on the lookout for them. If you know that your friend stops texting for days when they are not in a good headspace, call them or even show up to their house with their favorite foods. Tell them you will sit by their side and do nothing if that’s what they want, but let them know that they are loved and you are there for them. If your friend has panic attacks from being in big crowds, know their warning signs and assure them if they have to leave no one will be upset.
Realize that some people do not have ‘classic’ signs. Each person has unique side effects. Panic attacks aren’t always hyperventilating, depression isn’t always a constant state of sadness, OCD isn’t always someone constantly cleaning.
Be consistent because you care
Whenever people with mental illness have bad days, they tend to think that they are a burden to the others around them. I know that even though I am not always going to feel up to it, I love getting invited to get-togethers. Keep inviting your friends to events even if they aren’t always going to say yes. Keep showing up for them on their bad days. This shows that you still care, you’re still here, and you aren’t leaving.
Consistency and intentionality are major factors in a thriving friendship of any kind. However, they have the power to create an even stronger bond when the other person is fighting their mental health battle.
“What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human” – Brene Brown
Mental illness isn’t fun. In fact, it’s really hard. But, having someone by your side, who cares during those bad days can make it a little bit easier. Being that shoulder to lean on can also be difficult when you see someone you love suffering, but know that you can be a light in their life.
Lastly, if you or someone you know needs more support handling their mental health they can reach out to a health care professional at MentalHealth.gov.