Each time we hear about someone who succumbed to depression or mental health disorders, #letstalkaboutit begins to trend. Up go videos, social media updates, newspaper articles, blog posts, and more.
But like other horrific events, these tragedies make headlines for a few days. Then they lie forgotten.
In today’s dog-eat-dog world, expectations weigh us down. They cause absurd levels of stress. At work, in relationships, and among friends. According to research, stress is the single largest contributor to less heritable mental health issues like depression and anxiety disorders.
I experienced something damningly close a few years ago. I was stuck in an abusive relationship with no way out. It was like I was drowning and people were sitting on the banks, either ordering me to swim, or secretly rejoicing.
But three friends — none of whom knew each other — rescued me. They stood by me like rocks. Thanks to them, I could lead a normal life again.
This post is not addressed to people who’re experiencing mental health issues. It’s about what my friends did to help me when I was stuck in the relationship and could see no way out. If someone you love or know is in a delicate state of mind, this post will help you figure out what you can do to help them get in a better state of mind.
[Disclaimer: This is not a post based on science but on experience. It’s not a substitute for professional help.]
This situation is not about you. It’s not about your discomfort, ego, anxiousness, or desire to control the outcome. If you want to help someone, get these out of the way and focus on their needs instead.
The most fundamental, yet underrated thing you can do, is to listen.
An hour-long conversation where they speak for ten minutes and you speak for fifty, is not listening. Neither is the “I-would-never-have-done-what-you’re-doing” dialogue. Or the clichè, “it’s all in your head.”
Give them the freedom to pour their hearts out. You don’t have to PUSH them to ‘get over it’, or get help against their wishes. You don’t have to prove how much you care by getting angry or upset. Just give them an empathetic (not sympathetic) ear.
What happens when you try to control the outcome?
When you’re anxious and controlling, people suffering from mental health issues don’t respond with compliance. Instead, they reflect you by becoming anxious and defensive themselves. You would’ve done the same if the roles were reversed.
Instead, relax and listen non-judgmentally. They will mirror your relaxation and absorb the advice you offer.
You don’t know how they feel. Then how can you assume what they want?
When you listen, you figure this part out. Maybe they want to feel lighter by just talking. Or they want to experience the life they enjoyed before they found themselves in the current circumstances. Once you’ve got your finger on their pulse, you can prepare for the next course of action.
I remember feeling miserable and stuck. I wanted to get out, but couldn’t find a way. My friends listened to me and intermittently shared pearls of wisdom.
More importantly, my friends were patient.
People stuck in a defeated state of mind know what they must do. But rationale takes a back seat and stressful emotions run high. This is when they need your patience and understanding the most.
Your affected friend or family member will take time to improve. As badly as you want, you can’t pull them out of their mindset immediately. It’s slow. It’s painful. And it’s frustrating. But it’s what they need from you.
So accept it and be accommodative of their current feelings.
This is the most important thing you can do for someone in a delicate mental state. Take them to different places when you can; someplace where they can forget their worries and be their old selves.
Don’t indulge affected people in the same boring activities. Do something which rejuvenates them. Take them to the great outdoors. Help them meet more people. Have fun. Let them share a laugh with others.
My friends took me to my favorite pubs and restaurants. One of them dragged my kicking and screaming body to watch downright boring movies. And he let me drive his car often, because it lifted my mood, albeit for a few minutes.
We rarely repeated a place or activity. We went trekking, met new people, ate and drank, or just hung out in the great outdoors. These experiences felt rejuvenating. They made life pump through my veins again.
As my experiences changed, I realized that life was more than my current situation. The result was not immediate. It was progressive and slow. But it created a world of difference.
On some occasions, affected people might oppose when you offer to take outside. That’s okay. You can accept their ‘no’. But on other occasions, remind them of what they really want (point #3) and explain how the activity you propose will help. Or just drag them out to enjoy an ice cream.
They’ll thank you for it. I did.
Changes in experience give affected people plenty to be happy about.
Encourage them to jot down just three things they’re grateful for. Shawn Achor explains in his bestselling book, The Happiness Advantage:
“In one experiment, Chad Burton and Laura King instructed people to
write about a positive experience for 20 minutes three times a week and then
compared them to a control group who wrote about neutral topics. Not only did
the first group experience larger spikes of happiness, but three months later,
they had even lesser symptoms of illness.”
If someone misses writing in their journal for a day or two, it’s alright. Practiced over time, this will make affected people develop emotional resilience faster.
Almost 450 million people worldwide suffer from mental health disorders. According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and nearly 800,000 people die by suicide every year. In the U.S., every year approximately one in five adults experiences mental illness. But just a handful get the help they need. And that’s heartbreaking.
There is no quick and easy way to address these conditions. Nor can you, unless certified, provide professional help to affected people. But you can help them stabilize. You can put them in a state of mind to view their lives in a better light, or step outside their zone of fear and ask for professional help.
You can change someone’s life. Better yet, you can save it. Your tiny steps can become giant steps which turn someone’s life around.
I’m grateful to my friends for what they did during my trying times. You can do the same for someone you care about.
Originally published on Medium