I wish I could tell you all my whole story, but my story has become something more private than I ever expected it to be. Not something to just toss out there. Maybe one day I'll find the words to share it all, but for this year, I can tell you three things that I wish more people realized about mental health:
- Mental health is not binary.
Stop being surprised. For most people, keeping a struggle with mental health private is a way of feeling like it's under control and a way of avoiding judgement. Often hard times can be managed with proactive coping mechanisms, or with the help of medications that you might never know about, but that doesn't mean they're not there. It's a damned shame that more people don't feel comfortable coming forward to build coping mechanisms and support networks until things fall apart.
Not every physical illness requires us to go to the doctor or the hospital to survive. Let’s stop acting like the only mental health struggles that count are the ones that require a major intervention. Then we can start to acknowledge how varied mental health experiences are, how common they are, and how often they go unrecognized because of the stigmas we’ve built around them.
- Helping someone is easier, and harder, than you think.
We tend to treat people who seek help as though they are forfeiting part of their decision-making ability, as though they’re no longer capable of handling important decisions. But someone seeking help has already taken an especially tough decision and first step down a path to recovery. That path can be a long, hard one, and not everyone reaches the end. But imagine how much harder it is when taking that first step forward leads to everyone treating you as though you’ve stumbled three back instead.
Trying to help someone who is struggling with personal demons can make us feel powerless – but there’s something you can do: Be a good friend. Have a healthy relationship. Insist on it - don't give in to unhealthy habits. Give the person you want to support the type of support that you would want. Offer help when it’s requested, but let them make their own decisions – those are the ones that will stick. Give them something to compare the craziness in their life to, and let them choose the better path.
- If you want to help, help yourself first.
Trying to help someone struggling through mental health issues can take everything out of you. Some people need to find their footing before they can set the right boundaries for a good friendship, no matter how badly that's what they'd like to do. And trying to help until that happens can be incredibly frustrating: Because you care, you wish you could do something. So if things get worse, you start to panic and feel as though there's something you could have done. But wishing it doesn't make it true. You can't take on the hardest stuff, even for those you love the most, no matter how much you wish you could, no matter how much they'd like to let you.
And when you think about it, wanting to take all of the hard stuff on for someone else is perverse and patronizing - no one wants to be treated as a child who needs to be taken by the hand. Everyone wants to be able to stand on their own.
It feels selfish to take time for yourself when you know someone who's struggling, but it’s more selfish for a friend to take everything you've got. Be a good friend, but insist on the same for yourself. And take the time you need to take care of yourself. You’re worth it. Realizing just how worth it you are is one of the most important things any of us can do for our own health, and showing someone else that it's OK to make time for yourself is can be one of the best things you can do for them.
And to all those who are fighting to get by: You can find a way to do it. And you're not alone. Please, it doesn't have to be out loud for all to hear, but let's talk.