Even if you don’t personally struggle with mental health difficulties, chances are that you know someone who does. Here are 5 tips for being an ally – to that person, and to the millions of others impacted by mental health difficulties in the United States.
1 – Invite honest conversation, and then stay present
Too often, when we learn that someone is struggling, we withdraw. Generally speaking, it’s not that we intentionally create distance. Usually, it just happens when we don’t know what to say, when we worry that we will say the wrong thing, or when we get distracted by other things that are more comfortable to discuss/attend to. Challenge yourself to invite conversation, to stay present, and to really listen.
2 – Ask questions
You can’t know the person’s experience or what they need — so ask! Questions like “What do you need?” or “How can I help?” are a great place to start. Listen to the preference of the person who shares, and then respect it. They may ask for support that’s very different than what you would want or need in a similar situation, and that’s okay. In fact, that’s normal. Our uniqueness follows us wherever we go, and whatever we encounter, so it’s to be expected that mental health difficulties will impact each of us in unique ways and require unique support.
There are some questions it might be best not to ask — if you can google it, educate yourself there first. Don’t expect that someone impacted by a mental health difficulty is going to act as your professor. That’s not their obligatory role in life.
3 – Maintain a judgment free zone
Mental health does not thrive in response to comparisons, shaming, or judgment. Focus on the individual person’s experiences with questions such as, “What is that like for you?” and “What thoughts/feelings are you having?” You can also make affirming statements such as, “That sounds really hard,” “It sounds like you’re feeling really tired/overwhelmed,” or “There are so many things you’re keeping track of.” These are all more helpful than unsolicited advice about how your great-aunt Betty manages her depression with exercise, that your friend Janet’s kid uses medication for ADHD management, or that your neighbor’s cousin took up knitting and is never anxious anymore — all while not-so-subtly urging that maybe they should try that too! Chances are, the person you’re talking do is doing the very best they can to explore options, find wholeness, and heal. Just be with them. If they want ideas, trust that they will ask you. Or, if they really don’t seem like they will, always preface with, “Would you like some help finding resources or treatment options?” If they say, “No,” accept that answer.
4 – Be vulnerable, too.
Timing here is important. The moment your friend is disclosing the impact of their depression, anxiety, trauma-experience, or other mental health difficulty isn’t necessarily the time to chime in with your own mental health experiences (you don’t want to appear to be a one-upper in this conversation. No one wins in a vulnerability battle — what even is that?!). However, setting a tone of vulnerability in your friendship is valuable in communicating that you are a safe person to talk to and seek support from. This tone is cultivated over time, and it may look like acknowledging when you’re having a hard day, sharing when your own anxiety kept you up all night and/or chased you into the next day, or even just naming that life is feeling overwhelming right now. It can feel scary to be vulnerable, but don’t let that stop you – you have courage blooming in your bones!
5 – Choose your words thoughtfully
This tip is more like a lifestyle. Avoid words like “crazy,” “insane,” or “psycho.” Both when talking about mental health difficulties and in conversation about other topics. Don’t name-drop mental health difficulties to describe other people or daily annoyances – “OMG, I’m so OCD,” “The weather is bipolar,” “She looks anorexic.” These phrases minimize the real impact of mental health difficulties and trivialize legitimate related challenges. It can be challenging, because these phrases are so ubiquitous in our culture – from pop songs to t-shirts to media. But each time you hear one of these phrases is a chance to educate others. Being thoughtful about your language at all times powerfully communicates that you are an ally and an advocate.
This list isn’t exhaustive, but it is a good place to start. We all need people who support us, who encourage us, and who stand with us. Thank you for being a mental health ally!
How will you put these ideas into action this week?