The Modern Survival Guide #53
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. In this article I’m going to be talking about mental health, which is a fairly serious topic on the “survival” side, so if I say something that isn’t correct please blame me and not the resources I’ll be listing. As someone who has experienced depression on more than one occasion, this is a close-to-home topic for me.
Let’s start with an acknowledgement of the problem: we have brains.¹ They are the most fearsomely complex organs to pop out of the evolutionary process, and we barely understand them. Our brains are not fully under our control, either. At best one could think of them as the operating hardware on which the program of our consciousness runs, and that hardware is a little buggy. So when something goes wrong in our brains, we are individually very poorly equipped to address the problem, for much the same reason why you can’t see the back of your own head; the equipment isn’t designed to work that way.
This is a significant issue because, now that we track mental illness and don’t just file it away as hysteria or weakness, we know that a large proportion of the population is experiencing or will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness about 20% of the population is experiencing some form of mental illness at any given time. This includes clinical anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, OCD, etc. That is a non-trivial percentage, and it indicates an ever-changing population of people with a mix of curable and chronic conditions.
So, let’s get a big thing out of the way — based on that statistic alone, there is no reason whatsoever to stigmatize people with mental illnesses. There is no reason whatsoever to be ashamed of surviving with mental illness. The odds are pretty good that we will experience some form of mental illness in our lives; it makes no logical sense to punish ourselves or others for it.
And then there’s the flip side. It’s important to understand that when it comes to someone who is suffering from mental illness, logic has very little to do with the problem, and offering “logical” solutions won’t necessarily help. Telling someone who is suffering from depression that “It’s not that bad!” or telling someone with PTSD that they should “Just get over it, it happened in the past,” will. not. help.
So with that in mind, here are some things you can do to support someone living with a mental illness, and some things you absolutely should not do.
Things to DO
- Listen: Sometimes people just need someone to understand them more than anything else. Active listening is a good tool here.
- Talk: Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements to connect with and explore someone’s issues. “I’ve always wondered what depression is like,” can be a much better lead than “Why do you think you’re depressed?”
- Touch (If Appropriate): Physical contact can trigger endorphins and is a tangible reminder of company. Holding someone’s hand or shoulder, giving a hug, or simply shaking hands can help remind someone that they’re not alone and are cared for.
- Respect: Being respectful, empathetic, compassionate, and understanding of someone’s situation is almost always good, doubly so in this case.
- Support: Offer assistance where you can, when you can, without being condescending. Sometimes people simply require a lift to get them out of the mud.
- Include: Depression, in particular, can and will make sufferers believe that no one cares about them. Reaching out and inviting people to do things with you is almost always a good idea — at the same time, be prepared to keep asking, because people who are depressed have a lot working against them getting out of the house and will probably say no a few times.
- Investigate: Find out if the person is getting help, but don’t be too obvious. Remember that many people will treat mental illness as a stigma, and may take offense if they think you think they should be seeing a professional.
- Recommend: In a respectful, supportive, non-prescriptive manner, it can help to provide information on local counselors or psychologists.
- Monitor: Actively monitor the situation. If someone is becoming upset or combative while talking with you about a mental health issue, back off. You usually won’t get good results by pushing.
- Know: There are options available for both immediate and long-term help if you know someone suffering from mental illness. Here’s a link.
- Maintain: Caretaker stress is a thing, and doesn’t just apply to caring for elderly people. Keep an eye on your own stress levels so you can maintain your involvement at a level that doesn’t cause serious problems for you.
Things to AVOID
- Don’t be dismissive: Do not simply write off or diminish someone’s mental health issues. Particularly avoid statements like “I had it worse,” “everyone feels that way sometimes,” or “you have the same problem as (insert random individual).”
- Don’t be condescending: Avoid patronizing statements, sarcasm, jokes at the other person’s expense, and assumptions.
- Don’t talk too much: It’s not about you. It’s ok to let them fill the silences.
- Avoid most religious statements: Do not tell someone to “pray about it.” Do not tell someone “God will make it better.” These statements are unlikely to help and might very well trigger a crisis of faith at exactly the wrong time. On the other hand, offering to pray with someone can help, if they are religious. If they aren’t, avoiding religion entirely is a better idea.
- Don’t assign blame: Blame is a punishment, and mental illness is not something that you can make go away by punishing the sufferer. As such it’s a dick move to blame them. Don’t be a dick.
- Don’t show hostility or anger: In many cases mental illness is caused and perpetuated by trauma. Don’t add to the trauma. Again, don’t be a dick.
- Don’t push too hard: People with mental health issues may not be immediately receptive to offers for help, support, or treatment. Pushing too hard can alienate them.
- Don’t tell people to smile: This is actually kind of a roll-up of several of the previous points, if you think about, but the point stands — telling someone suffering from mental illness of any kind to just smile and get better is unhelpful. They would if they could. That they can’t is kind of the point. For the final time, don’t be a dick.
The Big Picture
In larger terms, the best thing you can do to support efforts to help people suffering from mental illness is to identify organizations that provide professional support or research and give them money.² Here’s a brief (very non-exclusive, if you have an organization you like please donate to them) list:
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
- Mental Health America
- Treatment Advocacy Center
- Brain & Behavior Research Foundation
- This is My Brave
- The Trevor Project
The good news is that mental health is much less stigmatized, research is much better funded, and people with mental illness are able to be much more open than they used to be. I think it is very important to continue that trend, and I hope you do too.
To that end, if you know someone with a mental illness, please do your best to be a good, supportive friend and ally. If and when you experience a mental health issue, please know that you are not alone and you are not without support, and please do seek help. Pretty much all of us are going to be there at some point, and we don’t have to suffer alone or in silence.
And to sum up, this a serious survival issue in the modern world. You or someone you know are extremely likely to have some experience with mental illness over your lifetime. So be prepared, know your resources, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and do be prepared to give it. It’s only a cold, lonely world out there if we let it be that way; it’s on us to support one another and survive together.
¹Granted, I’m making a pretty strong assumption on that point in some cases.
²Some folks would say, “Why not volunteer?” Well, you can do that too; volunteering is a great thing. But the best thing you can do is still to give money. Money is the magic anyone can do. It enables organizations to hire full-time personnel, acquire resources, pay their expenses, and fund media outreach efforts. Money helps organizations do more of everything; volunteers, unless they are dedicated volunteers, represent both a gain and drain on net resources. In net-benefit terms, money is always better. I’m not saying don’t volunteer — I’m saying that if you volunteer, be dedicated about it.