According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 18.6% of the population experienced mental illness in 2012 and this prevalence is higher in females compared to males. 28.8% of all people will experience some type of anxiety in their lifetime and the age group at highest risk is those from 30-44 years. This age group is again at the highest risk when considering mood disorders, which 20.8% of the population experience in their lifetime.
A mix of genetics and environment is often what causes symptoms to appear. It may be you, your friend, or a member of your family. That's ok. Here's what to do to help if someone you know is struggling with their mental health:
- Be supportive. This may seem obvious, but often it's hard to figure out what to do to help someone who is hurting. We get nervous and uncomfortable, and jump to try to fix the problem or tell them to "think positive." Both of these approaches can be harmful, as they invalidate the person's experience and make them feel unsupported and alone. A good statement to use is "This sounds so hard. I'm so sorry you're struggling right now. How can I help?"
- Keep the focus on the person. Don't take things personally. Self-care is important, and it's good to draw boundaries around sources of stress, even if the source is a friend who is struggling with their mental health. However, we can often take things too personally and add fuel to emotional fire. If a friend is struggling and they don't want to talk, that's ok. Don't make it about you because it most likely isn't. See #1 and try support them in other ways: send an email, leave them a gift, or just take a few moments to send them good thoughts.
- Acknowledge severity without shaming. It's easy to brush symptoms under the rug because they make us nervous or we think it's not a big deal. On the other hand, it's also easy to have a big reaction when someone discloses heavy emotions, because it's shocking and upsetting to us. We need to find the middle ground. Try to strike the balance of accepting the person's experience as it is while communicating supportively that this is not the norm and it should be proactively addressed. Change "Oh you'll be fine - it just takes time" or "Oh this is bad! You're worrying me and you need to get that figured out now!" to "This is so hard, and may stick around for a while or get worse. It's how it is right now, but not how has to be forever, so let's figure out what to do to address this and take action." If that doesn't work well, maybe they just need to be sad for a while, so allowing then to sit with that while staying connected to them in a caring way can help.
- Ask directly about suicidal thoughts. Sometimes with depression, these thoughts are already happening, but the person may feel too uncomfortable to bring it up or bring it up again if they have already. If we bring this to the table and accept it as a symptom that may be happening whether we like it or not (clearly not), we can discuss it and address it, without letting it slide too far (to where we can't be of help anymore). Ask directly: "Are you thinking about hurting yourself?" If the answer is yes, see #1 & 2, and consider calling the Suicide Prevention Hotline together at 1-800-273-TALK.
- GET TREATMENT. Years of solid mental health research have led to effective evidence-based practice delivered in short-term therapy that yields good results. See my article "What is Psychotherapy Today?" to understand a bit more about what therapy is and how a change in perspective may help people seek it.
Need to find a therapist? Go to Psychology Today Therapist Finder to enter your zip code and search through profiles of professionals that may meet exactly what you're looking for.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. To deny we have stigma is to deny the opportunity for growth. We all hold stigma about many things in the form of very automatic thoughts, which often occur under our awareness. The only way we can develop awareness is to talk about it and be willing to face discomfort in order to examine ourselves.