Helping Others With Mental Health Issues
Since the beginning of civilization, humans have organized themselves in groups of like-minded individuals helping others while fighting wild animals and winning wars. So, it’s in our DNA to organize ourselves into tribes – families, friends, hockey teams – to have some fun and look out for each other. And in today’s world, having someone’s back also means helping someone who is struggling with their mental health.
Going Postal or Silent Suffering: How to Tell if Someone Has a Mental Health Issue
Anxiety, depression, panic attacks, trauma, burnout, addictions…these are all familiar labels, but what does poor mental health look like? Sometimes it’s blatantly obvious, like someone waving a gun around in a Costco parking lot while naked, or announcing out-of-the-blue their bid to run in a Presidential Election. Sometimes it’s a little more subtle, like they’ve stopped attending the weekly Zoom happy hour, or they take days to return a funny text. Some common examples are:
- Behavioural symptoms: withdrawing from friends and family, losing interest in things they once enjoyed; self-destructive behaviours; addictions; violent outbursts; toxic relationships; talking about suicide.
- Physical symptoms: sleeping too much or too little, recurring headaches, low energy and fatigue, or a general decline in physical health.
- Cognitive signs: difficulty focusing, brain fog, and racing or obsessive thoughts.
- Emotional issues: expressing sadness or grief, apathy, tempers, extreme mood swings or emotionally numb.
- Existential issues: talking about having no purpose in life, feeling hopeless or lost.
The Magnitude of Mental Health in a Pandemic
- 1 in 6 people experienced a common mental health problem such as anxiety or depression in the past week. – Mental Health Foundation
- Nearly 20% of Canadians reported experiencing moderate to severe anxiety, and 18% reported feeling depressed since the COVID-19 pandemic began. – Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
- 56% of Canadians say COVID-19 is having a negative impact on their mental health. – Ipsos
You Always Hurt the Ones You Love: What Happens When People Don’t Take Care of Their Mental Health
When left untreated, poor mental health can result in physical health issues, difficulty functioning in day-to-day activities, and/or isolation. But what’s often not talked about is the impact on others. Poor mental health is infectious. Bad-tempered dads pass their anger management issues onto their kids. Insecure men with low self-esteem will develop toxic relationships with co-workers and partners. If someone close to you is suffering from poor mental health, your whole group will be negatively impacted, guaranteed.
Short-Term Pain for Long-Term Gain: How to Help Someone With a Mental Health Issue
Your task, as someone who is looking out for someone else, will be difficult. You risk offending the person you care about, becoming the (gasp) unpopular one, or being harmed. But we believe it’s better to be upfront rather than try to ignore symptoms and hope that things get better on their own. Trust us. They don’t. So what can you do to help?:
- Offer to talk. Don’t wait for them to come to you. Tell them you’ve observed some behaviour that concerns you and ask them about it. Not sure how to get started? Explain how their behaviour impacts you: “When you cancel plans at the last minute, it hurts. Is something going on?”
- Learn to listen. We tend to help others using methods that calm us – but immediately assuming what they need causes them to feel misunderstood. Hear them out rather than jumping to conclusions.
- Show empathy, not sympathy. Being empathetic means being with them in the moment and letting them know that you’re happy they shared with you. Sympathy, on the other hand, invalidates how they feel by you trying to put a silver lining on things or telling them to “think positive.”
- Be supportive. Offer to help them find a therapist, make a counselling appointment, drive them to a doctor, or support a healthy lifestyle. Routine, exercise, healthy eating, sleeping, and recreation are all important aspects of improving someone’s mental health.
- Take care of yourself. It can be distressing to see someone you care about in pain. Assisting someone who is ill is stressful, and you need support, too. Know your limits and know when it’s time to call a professional for yourself.
- Respect boundaries. Don’t take it personally if they don’t want to get into specific details or don’t think they need help. Ultimately, what they decide to do about their mental health is up to them. The best you can hope for is they come back to you later to restart the conversation.
- Recognize a crisis. If someone is threatening to harm themselves or others or having a panic attack, you should encourage them to get help immediately. Have a crisis line phone number on hand just in case.
No good deed goes unpunished. Do not expect an award, confetti or a parade for trying to help. In fact, you’re better off anticipating a verbal tirade. But don’t let that deter you. Not being liked in the moment is far better than the reality of what could happen if you don’t say something now. Check out our Worried About Someone page to learn more.