One of the statistics that we cite at Take This with some frequency is that, depending on what study you look at, roughly one in four people will meet criteria for a diagnosable mental illness in their lifetime. This means, while you might not be aware of it, you already know many people who struggle with various forms of mental illness. They’re in your schools, your homes, your work. You may even struggle yourself. Let’s talk about how you can help yourself be the awesome person you are by compassionately helping other people do the same.
“We’ve all got a little mental illness.”
I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. There are very few phrases that make me want to flip a table or rage quit a conversation like this phrase. Don’t say this phrase! On the surface, it might seem understanding, like it’s saying, “I’ve been there too.” People often say it with the best of intentions. I truly believe that. However, what people who suffer from various forms of mental illness can hear is, “Your problems are just like other people’s problems. Why can’t you just buck up and deal with it like the rest of us?”
The language you use in talking about mental illness is a subtle hint at how you’re going to judge those who suffer from them. While it’s true that everyone has challenges in life, equating those challenges to a mental illness can be a minimizing and shame-inducing experience for those who suffer from mental illness, which – by definition – are conditions so distressing and of such severity that they impair a person’s ability to function in their day-to-day activities.
Further, if you aren’t aware of it, a reason many people don’t seek help with their mental health challenges is exactly that: shame. They’re often ashamed that they were too “weak” to fix things on their own, or they believe others will think that, so they keep it all inside. They often feel alone and helpless, which can compound their challenges.
A problem is a problem is a problem!
Aside from cementing my place as the head of the Department of Redundancy Department, the phrase, “A problem is a problem is a problem!” is meant to illustrate something to those I work with: problems are real to the person experiencing them, whether that’s you or someone else – and no value judgements will change that. If a person can’t focus on their work because they keep thinking the same thoughts about their home life, that is a problem. If a person can’t meet people because they are too nervous to talk to them, that is a problem. If a person repeatedly can’t beat one mission on Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, that is also a problem – but maybe that’s just me?
Obviously, not all of these problems have the same impact on a person’s life, but no problem can be solved without acknowledging it first. If a person trusts you enough to describe a personal problem they have, honor it. Don’t argue or minimize their problem. What’s more, just because another person might have it “worse” doesn’t mean a “smaller” challenge isn’t worth addressing. We need to be honest with ourselves and others about challenges before we can solve it, no matter its impact.
“It’s Dangerous to go Alone”
There’s a reason we use this as a slogan at Take This. One of the worse parts to dealing with mental health challenges is sometimes feeling alone and helpless. There’s strength and hope in knowing others have your back, and that can help you to know that you are stronger than you might think. Just being there for someone, without reservation of judgment, can be a helpful action.
As a mental health professional, I believe one of the most difficult things to do is to tolerate one’s own discomfort at someone else’s discomfort without trying to fix their problem. It’s a natural human reaction to try to save those about whom we care from pain. While allowing someone their own process is a gift, being able to honestly sit with them and validate their struggle can – in some cases – be a literal life saver.
Listen, Learn, and Thank Them
What can you do when someone tells you they suffer from a mental illness? Listen, learn, and thank them. Unlike physical ailments or conditions, what they’re dealing with is largely invisible but no less impairing. What’s more, it may have taken enormous courage on their part to even tell you about it.
If you just asked, “What’s courageous about that?” think about it: they might feel alone and nearly hopeless, and there are those who might minimize their legitimate suffering. In spite a potential – and often realistic – fear of being rejected and ostracized, they showed vulnerability and reached out to you.
That is brave. End of story. Treat it as such. Thank them for trusting you enough to reach out.
You can also listen to what they have to say to you, and ask gentle, open-ended questions with the intention of learning about their situation. If you find yourself confused or frustrated by what they tell you, practice saying something like this: “It’s hard for me to understand what you’re dealing with. If I’m this confused and frustrated, I can only imagine how hard this is for you.” That kind of validation lets them know they are not alone. It’s so powerful. I’ve seen more than one person reduced to tears from the relief they felt at another person openly acknowledging their challenges and confusion.
This is difficult stuff, but it’s doable and shows compassion and understanding in the face of suffering. A little compassion and understanding are often all it takes to work with those whose challenges we aren’t sure we can understand, or to help make life easier for the people around us. And these are only a few of many ways we can help. For those of you who have needed it, how have others shown you compassion? What’s helped you the most?
Feature Image: Anime Network/Welcome to N.H.K.
Raffael Boccamazzo (AKA “Dr. B”) is a doctor of clinical psychology and clinical director of TakeThis.org. He also runs a private psychotherapy and psychological assessment practice in the Seattle area and works with several local groups as a social skills coach, often for older teens and young adults with high functioning autism spectrum diagnoses. In his spare time, he cooks, acts, and plays oodles of different tabletop and video games.
Take This is an informational organization. The resources we provide are for informational purposes only, and should not be used to replace the specialized training and professional judgment of a health care or mental health care professional. For more information about these resources, please visit our website.