“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” – Dumbledore
Harry Potter aside, if someone walked around with their arm in a cast you wouldn’t tell them it wasn’t broken. If you did, you’d back down quickly if shown an x-ray of the snapped bones.
Why? Because things like broken bones are widely understood and accepted. You wouldn’t think twice about holding the door for someone on crutches or grabbing their crutch should it fall. It’s common sense. Someone is struggling and you have the capacity to help, even if they’re a stranger and it’s in a small way.
Why is this different for mental health?
Mental Health Awareness Day was on the 10th October. Maybe you’re lucky enough that for you this day was the same as any other, but for many people, the words ‘mental health’ haunt them. This may be because, like myself, they struggle with a mental health condition or because, like my fantastic friends, they love someone with a mental health condition.
Either way, it’s not easy.
Just because mental health conditions can’t be seen and there aren’t any x-rays to prove their existence, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. It doesn’t mean you can tell people to “get over it” or that it’s “all in your head”. Mental health problems should be accepted and understood the same way physical conditions are.
Did you know that if a mental health condition lasts for longer than 12 months you are officially disabled?
How to help; listen. Please. The person with the mental health problem might not be able to ask you for this, but please just do it. We’re not asking for all your time. We’re not saying you’re now our babysitter. If someone in your flat or on your course tells you they have a mental health condition, please give them the time of day. Don’t think of them as annoying. It probably took great courage for them to tell you. Occasionally ask how they are. Listen to them. Talk to them. Don’t force them to bottle it up.
If someone with a mental health condition declines whenever you ask them to do something, don’t stop asking. One day they may accept. If possible, make a plan that is easier for them occasionally, such as sitting in and watching a film together.
If you feel that whenever you’re with a person with a mental health condition it’s ending up in panic attacks or breakdowns, maybe rethink what you’re doing. You don’t have to change everything. You don’t have to account for their needs with every plan. Occasionally, just check-in to see if they’re okay. Comments such as “just let me know if it gets too much” or “I’m here whenever you need to chat” are so valuable.
Don’t make the person feel too needy or annoying. You’d never complain that someone with a broken thumb writes too slowly, or that when with a wheelchair user you must always take the lift. It is no different. These are adjustments that are made because of a health condition.
Don’t stop being friends with someone because of a mental health condition; we are worth it. I promise.
However, whilst all of this is important, remember you aren’t a psychologist. It’s not your job to ‘fix’ a person, the same way you wouldn’t start sticking broken bones back together. You are a friend, or a flat-mate, or a course-mate. You should listen, and you should let them know you care. You should adjust to their condition, but you shouldn’t change everything you do.
And, no matter what, if you are worried about their safety, or you think it is getting too much for you, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
The fact that you are trying means so much, and perhaps one day everyone will accept that just because a mental health condition is invisible doesn’t mean it’s any easier. Perhaps one day everyone will be open to help.