In my experience, and I imagine most people’s, dealing with others’ suggestions of what to do about your mental health can be like fending off thrown stones when you’re already down. ‘Why don’t you try’ and ‘you should consider’ ring through your already frazzled mind and make you feel worse for each one you don’t attempt or accomplish. Whether you can’t manage the advised course or have already tried it, or if it’s not right for you, the result is the same – you feel like a failure because of it. It adds to a suspicion you might already have that nothing will work, that it is in fact, hopeless.
Even If it’s well-meaning, piling on this sense of failure onto somebody who likely already feels shame and low self-esteem, as is almost always the huge burden of poor mental health, is not dissimilar from kicking a dog when he’s down.
Despair doesn’t want logic; it wants encouragement, company and love.
But, what can you do? It is in our nature to find a logical solution to a problem presented to us. We’re more out of touch with the emotional and ready with the rational. I’m guilty of it all the time, despite suffering my own mental health issues and knowing it’s not what I want when I seek comfort from a loved one. Logical steps are great when you’re ready for them, when you ask for them and when they are well-tailored to your needs. But often it’s the comfort of emotional support that we really need. It’s the difference between saying ‘I love you and I’m here for you’ compared to ‘you really ought to try’. One is a statement of love and support, the other is a challenge - a hoop for them to jump through when they can barely stand.
Instead, be patient and spend time with them.
Don’t laden someone with a mental health problem with suggestions of ‘should’s, ‘could’s, ‘must’s or ‘have to’s – especially frigging ‘have to’s. If they’ve been suffering for a while, or even just any longer than you’ve been thinking about it, the chances are they’ve already considered or tried that option, or that they’ve heard it so many times it has become meaningless to them.
If they seek your advice, fine. Otherwise, the best thing you can do for them, if you care for them, is to be patient and to let them know that you are there, that you care for them and are ready to support them in any way necessary. And to build them up. And to listen. Not tell. To remind them that this time will pass, and that they will find a way improve their conditions one way or another.
Now the emotional can be difficult for many of us stiff upper lipped Brits. No matter where you’re from the vulnerability of sincere emotion in an era of sarcasm can be tricky. Perhaps you can take baby steps, or simple approaches. A hug goes a long way, for example. Or perhaps you can write them a message in a card or on social media. But if you find all these things difficult, it’s also great just to spend time with a suffering friend.
You don’t have to directly declare your love and support to remind them they have it.
Just be present. Have fun. Let them know you’re there just by being there, and by taking their mind off things with a casual coffee and a catch up about other matters entirely. This will not only remind them they have loved ones and support structures, but that normal life outside their mental health still exists. Both infinitely more helpful than even your best advice.
Exceptions? Of course, there is the odd exception.
If someone is a new sufferer or simply has not considered therapy or medication, perhaps they should have the option normalised by hearing someone say it. Such things are further validated if coming from someone who has experience with that route themselves. For instance, I try to normalise things I have experienced myself, especially if I’ve found them beneficial, such as therapy or meditative practices or exercise.
But even then, I try to identify when people might not be ready for certain things, or willing to hear the suggestion. This can become a trust-your-gut type of affair, but the bottom line is, ease up significantly on the advice front. If not completely.
You might think you’ve only dropped one suggestion...
...but if everyone in their life drops one suggestion, not to mention people on the internet or in self-help literature, your drop might be one after thousands that causes the bucket to topple and spill. Especially when so many different types of advice are available and eventually, inevitably contradict each other and clash, disturbing the waters instead of calming and clarifying them.
In any given week I might get conflicting advice from a friend, a therapist and a family member. As an indecisive and vulnerable person, this only perpetuates my stresses and inability to cope, and my feeling not good enough.
Stigmas ought to be torn away, and the conversations had. But the way we do it should be carefully and considerately. Problems won’t be solved over night or with frustrated suggestions, but with greater understanding and patience.