When it comes to mental-health advocacy, modern rhetoric pushes for open and honest vulnerability and communication. Often, however, the responsibility is placed solely on the people who are suffering to pull up their bootstraps and ask for help.
Mental-health initiatives — whether in the form of non-profits or activist discourse — use this type of tag line because it’s simple, easy to remember and even easier to promote, but what is the actual message?
It is not enough to promote one-sided vulnerability without fully addressing the conversation that inevitably has to follow after a person initiates a request for help.
More often than not, most folks don’t quite know how to react when they are on the receiving end of a heavy conversation. In many ways, we are only just beginning to explore the importance of mental-health advocacy and overall emotional intelligence in our society.
As humans, most of us tend to gravitate towards active or participatory solutions, meaning that we look for logical or pragmatic solutions to any given problem. This means that if your friend comes to you and expresses that they are feeling upset, your initial response will likely lean towards seeking out the core of the issue and trying to fix it.
Let me paint a quick picture for you — a friend comes to you in tears after being fired. Your first instinct is to launch into a speech about how there are other jobs and they will find another one no problem and you will even help them with their resume if they’d like.
Despite your efforts, your friend leaves feeling even more emotionally exhausted than before. You are then left feeling useless, ignored and a little agitated. Later, you find out that they simply wanted a hug and not advice, but they were too upset to verbally announce this to you.
This kind of miscommunication happens all the time. The impulse to launch into a list of possible solutions to a given problem is a common one. This makes sense because people want to help, and logically, fixing the problem will help the person in need.
However, most of us are already well aware of the other possibilities, and that things will be okay in the long run, but it doesn’t change our need to express our more immediate emotional reactions that need — and deserve — to be felt, whether or not they are unpleasant.
So, what happens when a friend approaches you about their mental health? What do you do when you’re confronted with a friend who is facing suicidal ideation, intrusive thoughts or dissociative episodes, amongst other mental-health concerns?
It is your job to trust your friend as they recount their own experiences and believe them. One reason why many folks choose to not seek help is because of the hierarchical divide that is tacitly enforced when you divulge your vulnerabilities. When someone discloses a difficulty, if you have the urge to swoop in and explain it, solve it or gaslight them, don’t.
Sometimes, even when we think we are helping, we are actually stifling important emotions that need to be felt. When a friend approaches you with a problem, consider asking them, “Are you looking for advice or for empathy?” This simple question shows the person that you are invested and ready to listen. It also removes the onus from the person asking for help, who may not be able to verbally communicate their needs.
Sorting through emotions is a process. This means that our needs change and adapt in different settings and at different times. Instead of asking something vague like “What do you need?” consider listing some options to provide a more comfortable environment in which asking for help can be done safely and effectively.
Try asking, “Would you like practical advice?” or “Would you like a hug?” or “Would you like to watch television and talk when you’re ready?” Ask them to simply nod when they hear a suitable point of action, and if they don’t, maybe just stop talking.
Additionally, remember that no one is your responsibility. Draw boundaries with the people around you, and recognize when you are able to help and when you are not. If the way that your friend is going about asking for help makes you uncomfortable due to manipulative language or any other red flag, you are not required to engage.
If you are unable to provide comfort for any reason, don’t. It may be cheesy, but the classic airplane analogy of adjusting your own oxygen mask before assisting others rings true.
It is time to recognize that mental-health conversations are two-sided and in constant flux. Each participant has a role to play. It’s simply not enough to just “ask for help.” We also need to listen.
Graphic: Jaymie Stachyruk / Graphics Editor