The admonition to ‘pull yourself together’ can be damaging to those struggling with a debilitating illness that impact on their lives and the lives of those around them. People say things about those dealing with a mental illness that they simply wouldn’t dream of saying to someone with, say, cancer or another physical disease. Empathy and awareness can be hard to come by, which is why many people with mental illness simply don’t feel safe to talk about their symptoms or experiences with those around them.
Perhaps the reason most of us are scared of talking about mental illness is the fact that we have nearly all, at some point of our lives, experienced the miseries of depression – even if it was just for an hour or a day. The fact that a feeling like that could take a hold of our whole life is terrifying to say the least, and throughout history we have shunned people with mental illness, scorned them and locked them up: perhaps as a way of avoiding thinking about how close we all walk to a loss of our mental equilibrium. It is sometimes easier to ignore or to shun something we don’t really understand or are afraid of. But as more people speak openly about their experiences, it breaks down the barriers of communication and allows those with mental health problems to seek the help they need. When those in the public eye, like Stephen Fry or Jo Brand, come forward and share their stories of mental illness, it is the beginning of a change in the way the media perceives sufferers as helpless, unsuccessful or in some way different to the rest of us.
Stephen Fry writes on the Depression Alliance website: “If you know someone who’s depressed please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation, depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the otherside. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest and best things you will ever do.”
World Mental Health Day falls on October 10th and is a chance to reach out to those in need, or seek help yourself. As Stephen Fry comments, being a friend to someone with mental illness can be incredibly challenging but is a huge gift in a person’s darkest hours. Finding the words to talk about mental illness can still be difficult, particularly as it’s not something we often feel comfortable discussing, so Time to Change, a campaign to end the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health, have come up with tips to help you start that conversation and be a source of support:
1. Take the lead: If you know someone has been unwell, don’t be afraid to ask how they are. They might want to talk about it, they might not. But just letting them know they don’t have to avoid the issue with you is important. Make a pledge to talk about mental health today.
2. Avoid clichés: Phrases like ‘Cheer up’, ‘I’m sure it’ll pass’ and ‘Pull yourself together’ definitely won’t help the conversation! Being open minded, non-judgemental and listening will.
3. Think about body language: Try to be relaxed and open – a gaping mouth, regular clock watching or looking uncomfortable won’t go unnoticed.
4. Ask how you can help: People will want support at different times in different ways, so ask how you can help.
5. Don’t just talk about mental health: Keep in mind that having a mental health problem is just one part of the person. People don’t want to be defined by their mental health problem so keep talking about the things you always talked about. Just spending time with the person lets them know you care and can help you understand what they’re going through.
6. Don’t avoid the issue: If someone comes to you to talk, don’t brush it off because this can be a hard step to take. Acknowledge their illness and let them know that you’re there for them.
7. Give them time: Some people might prefer a text or email rather than talking on the phone or face to face. This means they can get back to you when they feel ready. What’s important is that they know you’ll be there when they’re ready to get in touch. What about sending an e-card?
8. Find out more: If you feel awkward or uncomfortable about the conversation, find out more about mental illness. If you think it would help, you could also find about other help that’s available.