When people find out that I am a clinical psychologist, one of the most common responses I get is, “How do I help someone in my life struggling with mental health issues?” There is a reason this response occurs with such frequency. In 2017, 7.1% of all adults in the United States had one or more major depressive episodes and 19.1% met diagnostic criteria for at least one anxiety disorder. Now consider that these numbers don’t include any of the following:
- People who had less severe symptoms of depression or anxiety
- People who had significant depressive episodes and anxiety disorders prior to 2017
- People who struggled with mental health problems other than depression and anxiety (e.g., substance use, eating disorders, psychotic disorders) in 2017
These facts demonstrate that the percentage of individuals struggling with significant mental health problems at any given time is staggering. As such, virtually all people are closely acquainted with at least one person who is currently struggling with a mental health problem.
The impact of having a loved one struggling with depression or anxiety can be profound and, in fact, is often itself a reason that many people seek therapy. Unfortunately, there is no single behavior that is effective at helping all people who are struggling with depression and anxiety.
The good news is, there are some approaches that tend to work better than others. I have outlined these below:
1. Educate yourself in order to dispel harmful myths about mental illness.
There are numerous harmful myths about depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses that are very prevalent in our society. Beliefs that mental illness is a sign of weakness, is untreatable and can be conquered through sheer willpower prevent people from seeking treatment. Beliefs that mental illness is simply a result of bad parenting, a chemical imbalance, an improper diet, or not having found religion leads people to seek unhelpful—and sometimes harmful—treatments. Beliefs that mental illness is a sign of deviance, is associated with violence and renders people incapable of healthy relationships leads people to avoid those who are struggling.
With such myths rampant in society, it is important that you educate yourself on the truth about mental illness so that you aren’t making decisions based on them and further perpetuating them. There are three relatively simple ways to start dispelling myths about mental illness:
- Seek out free online resources from organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI)
- Make your next book club selection one of the many first-person accounts of people’s mental health struggles, like Elyn Saks’ “The Center Cannot Hold,” “Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind,” or Lauren Slater’s “Prozac Diary”
- Talk to someone with current or past mental health struggles about their own experience
2. Try some perspective taking.
Even if you have never had a major depressive episode or met diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder, chances are you have had an episode of intense sadness or fear at some point in your life. After all, depression and anxiety are not all-or-nothing entities—they exist on a continuum. Try to put yourself back in the mindset you were in at that time in your life and recall what was helpful for you. Many people think that providing “tough love” or, on the other extreme, pushing “positive thinking” onto someone, can help snap them out of their suffering. But in practice, neither approach tends to help.
What does tend to help are things like empathic behavior, validating communication, supportive listening, collaborative problem-solving, and patience. Chances are, if you think back on a time in your life when you were struggling, those were the things that family, friends, and acquaintances provided that were actually able to help you. It also never hurts to ask the person who is struggling what they need from you and how you can best support them.
3. Take red flags seriously and act on them.
There are certain red flags that should trigger immediate action for people dealing with others’ mental health struggles. Any indication that someone is seriously thinking about hurting or killing themselves needs to be taken seriously. Signs that someone is suicidal can range from the obvious (such as purchasing a gun or writing a suicide note) to the very subtle (such as no longer talking about the future or taking care of themselves). If you believe that someone is feeling suicidal, you should encourage them to reach out to their treatment provider or the National Suicide Hotline (1-800-273-8255) as soon as possible. If you think that someone is on the verge of engaging in suicidal behavior, you should call 911 or accompany them to the nearest emergency room.
But suicidal thoughts and behaviors aren’t the only important red flags to consider. There are many other warning signs that someone’s struggle with depression and anxiety may be worsening. Such signs include things like withdrawal from social relationships, decreased work attendance, and significant weight changes. If you become concerned about someone, talk to them about what you have noticed and see if they need support. It can be incredibly helpful to intervene before things get worse.
4. Remember that you can’t “fix” them, but you can help them get help.
One of the biggest sources of distress for people dealing with others’ mental health problems is an inflated sense of responsibility. You are not responsible for “fixing” a person’s depression or anxiety, nor is it likely that you will be able to. What you may be able to do, however, is help them connect with a professional who might be able to. Educating yourself on the effectiveness and local availability of pharmacological and psychotherapeutic interventions for depression and anxiety is one concrete thing you can do to help someone effectively address their depression and anxiety. And if they refuse to get the help you suggest and you are feeling discouraged and stuck, consider speaking to a mental health professional yourself for support.
5. Keep at it as long as you can.
The unfortunate truth is that supporting people who are struggling with mental health issues can at times be unrewarding and frustrating. When people are feeling scared or hopeless, it is only natural that they may be resistant to your outreach and may struggle to enjoy activities that are supposed to be “fun.” Nevertheless, it is important that you keep connected and providing support as long as you can (without damaging your own mental health, of course). Keep calling and texting and inviting, even if the outreach seems to go unnoticed. Keep telling them that you care and are there for them, even if it seems your efforts go unappreciated.
No matter how frustrating it is, keep asking. You never know when you’re going to get through to someone or when they will be ready to accept your help.
NIMH Statistics: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/index.shtml
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