Feel uncomfortable if someone else is struggling? Mental health awareness can involve a learning curve. But it tends to improve not just our relationships with those around us, but also with ourselves. And it can even be lifesaving.
So how can you be a better mental health ally?
If you want to be a mental health ally it’s important to know more about mental health than what some social media posts told you. Take time to research the signs of depression and anxiety, and the steps to supporting someone who is feeling suicidal.
Or consider taking a ‘mental health first aid’ course (MHFA). These are offered throughout the country on an ongoing basis. One option is to see if your workplace is willing to cover a course for its employees.
Language is powerful. There are some expressions that are simply outdated and leave another person feeling shamed for issues that are beyond their control. Learn better replacements, such as:
The above examples make some of these clear. Mental health disorders don’t make someone ‘sick’, they aren’t viruses or illnesses you see under a microscope but merely a group of symptoms.
And a person is not their disorder. They are a person who happens to have an issue or disorder.
Listening is a power tool when done correctly. And no, it’s not actually listening if you are thinking about other things, or waiting for them to be finished so you can share your own story.
Good listening means being fully present, and it means reflecting back and asking good questions if you don’t understand.
Use listening as a replacement whenever you want to offer advice or platitudes. Nobody going through a hard time needs to hear, "When I was struggling like you, I went and…”. Or, "Chin up think positive!". Despite your best intentions this comes across as condescending and makes things about you, not the other person’s experience.
“How are you” by itself is not really a question, it’s a social contrivance. The other person feels compelled to say ‘fine’. So shake it up and connect more by asking people more exact questions that care about the answer, like:
Don’t start questions with ‘why’, though. These tend to lead the other person feeling cornered or falling into a self-reflexive rabbit hole. Consider the difference, for example, between "You look flustered…" with, "Why do you look flustered?" The first gives the person the option to share. The latter seems a judgement that forces an explanation.
The one thing nobody going through a mental health challenge needs is sympathy. It just makes someone feel judged and like a failure. And they aren’t. We all go through challenges, it’s part of life.
Offer empathy instead, where you acknowledge they are struggling and that you understand it’s hard. Work to see what they are going through and understand their perspective.
It’s that airplane scenario with the mask again. The old adage that you can’t help others if you aren’t helping yourself first.
The best way to have more compassion for others and to understand them better is to have more compassion for ourselves, and know ourselves better.
Therapy can be a great fast track here. It creates a safe space to get to know what we really think, feel, and want. And the best way to help someone else is often to lead by example. If you are constantly worrying about everyone else’s mental health and pushing them to go to therapy? Start by going yourself.
Time to take your own mental health seriously? Use our easy booking tool now to find the right therapist for you and get started.
Andrea M. Darcy has been writing about mental health for over a decade and is the lead writer of this blog and is a therapy consultant, helping people find their perfect therapist and type of therapy.