How NOT to talk to people with mental health issues
Given that almost half of adults 18 and older in the world right will experience (or has experienced) some kind of mental health issue/disorder in their lifetimes, we probably all know someone (or a number of someones) who are afflicted with one or more of these disorders. We may even have an issue or two of our own, whether or not officially diagnosed. Rates of mental illness have been creeping up across the globe, although whether that is due to more people being diagnosed, a greater awareness of mental health issues, remains to be debated.
The non-debatable truth is, most of us probably know someone who has struggled with at least one mental disorder, if not more. Unfortunately, too many people are uninformed and have absolutely no idea how to deal with or how to talk to their friends/neighbors/loved ones who are dealing with a mental crisis. I personally know several people who actually doubt that mental health disorders are real. Apparently they are lucky enough to not have any such issues, or are undiagnosed, or they’re in denial … and subsequently as a result they are self-medicating, as we know many people with these issues — diagnosed or not — tend to do.
Because there are so many individuals who are not in the know, it is my wish to lend a hand (two of them, actually, as I’m typing this article) to help those who might need a primer on approaching others who have mental health issues. Kind words and gentle guidance given to those people just might help them in some way, maybe even save someone’s life.
Speaking of ending one’s life, one very disturbing statistic I found on the ‘Net was that suicide is the second leading cause of death in people in the U.S. between the ages of eight and 34. Eight?!?!? Really?!?! As I was the “odd” kid in grade school who was picked on and not included, I’m pretty sure that suicide never crossed my mind then (no, my mind was consumed during all that tormenting with the “fight or flight” reactions to those who bullied me). Most know that men are much more likely to commit suicide, probably due to those old outdated macho stereotypes and teachings that boys get from their parents (mostly fathers, who got it from their fathers, and so on) in which they’re supposed to suppress/deny their feelings, grit their teeth, and “just get on with it.” I find this incredibly sad. Anyone who loves a man who might be feeling “down” or “just not right” would be doing them a favor by drawing them out and encouraging their emotional sharing … even if you have to drag it out of them, agonizing inch by inch, with a tow rope.
I became fascinated by the study of psychology back in high school when I took my first class on the subject in 11th grade (a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ….). While in college I took every psychology class I could, and actually thought about becoming a therapist (just one of the many professions I was talked out of). I then become an unofficial, unpaid therapist over the decades for many friends. I sometimes self-diagnose others with some mental health disorder or another, which makes me uncomfortably like Leonard’s overbearing mother (played by the great Christine Baranski) on “The Big Bang Theory.” Except, in my defense, unlike her I often diagnose people without their knowledge. Nor am I — I hope anyway. — “overbearing” like she is.
Also while in college I became interested in the study of addictions and people who have them and found that the mental health and subastance abuse issues commonly are co-occurring, which often leads the people suffering from them to suicide. While I personally think addiction is largely a matter of choice (one chooses to pick up a drink or use that drug), people with, say, depression do not choose to feel that way. And why would they??
According to Wikipedia, the countries that tend to have the highest rates of mental illness are the United States (no surprise there), the Netherlands, Columbia, and Ukraine. On the other side of the slope, the countries with overall lower levels of mental health issues include Nigeria, Shanghai, Italy, and all the Asian countries (one wonders what their secret(s) is/are?) Obsessive-compulsive disorder is more common in Latin America, Africa and Europe “as in Asia and Oceania.” Schizophrenia rates are higher in Japan (which, conversely, has the world’s lowest rate of depression), Oceania, and southeastern Europe, and least common in Africa. Bipolar and panic disorders appear to be consistent around the world.
In the U.S., anxiety disorder (18 percent of people) is the highest diagnosed mental health problem, followed by depression. Given the very sad state of affairs going on in this country and across the globe in the past five weeks (what with the spreading of the coronavirus, plus widespread rioting, protesting and general racially-centered chaos) it seems likely the anxiety and depression rates have bounced upwards across the board. Feelings of hopelessness and despair are in all likelihood being felt by many of us as we watch tensions mount and events unfolding, as well as the numbers of those ill and/or dying from covid-19.
People who have a friend/co-worker/loved one suffering with or showing signs of suffering with some sort of mental disorder can do many helpful things, such as offering compassion, support, pointing them to help/resources to deal with their issues. Most larger towns, and some smaller ones, have a number of mental health treatment facilities and are as close as a Google search away. There are a few things which — if you are in this category of trying to help an afflicted person — I urge people NOT to do, because these actions will not help and might even cause harm.
- Don’t judge, nag, lecture or become all “holier-than-thou” with the person. I’ve seen too much of this in my life, people thinking they were “all that” because supposedly they had no mental health issues. The way non-afflicted (or non-diagnosed) persons talk about others who do have mental struggles has indicated to me that they think they are better than those who who have issues and that sufferers are “weak.” This is NOT the attitude with which you want to approach someone who has (or may have), say, bipolar disorder, anxiety, panic disorder, and so on.
- Ridicule and impatience are not called for; genuine interest, concern and kindness ARE called for here. Ask your friend if he/she has something going on that he/she wants to talk about. Offer a shoulder, an ear, a hand, some understanding based on knowledge and out of your concern for that person. Validate, rather than downplay, other people’s feelings. This is one of the kindest and most loving thing anyone can do for another, is validate their feelings. More people need to learn this skill; I highly recommend it.
- If someone says something like “I think I’m depressed” don’t say “Oh no you’re not. Just snap out of it. You’re fine.” Denial is ignorance and neither one is helpful to others who may need it. And for goodness’ sake don’t encourage those with mental health issues to “have another drink” (or another shot, or a snort, etc.). It is not recommended unless you want to witness the possible consequences of mental health issue combined with substance use disorder, one of which is killing one’s self. I’ve seen this too many times in my life and I’d really rather not see it again. I’m sure many of you feel the same way. I’ve heard many times that “men get depressed because they drink (which is precisely why a former boyfriend of mine from long ago committed suicide), women drink because they are depressed,” and I believe it’s true.
So, please, please PLEASE, all of you who know/love someone who either has or may have a mental health issue: do not shame, make fun of, talk down to or deny a problem to that person. Better to offering encouraging words, helpful advice, gentle guidance to help/therapy, and assistance with the mundane chores of life management. Because mental health disorder or no, all of us could use a lot more gentleness and kindness in our lives … and not only “in these unprecedented times” (sticks finger down throat for using that waaaayyyy overused phrase) but always. Please be kind and understanding.