I see it every day, people claiming they advocate for mental health while not actually doing any of the work needed to be a true ally. It isn’t enough to say you care about breaking the stigma if, in your personal relationships, you are not practicing supportive behavior. The problem is that unless you have actually experienced that disorder, it is hard to really empathize with those who are struggling. Instead, we learn about what we think we should do through the media, which is almost always wrong. Luckily learning the right ways to be supportive is not that hard!
This is probably the hardest. Most people reading this are probably thinking, “I don’t judge people with mental health issues!” but let me shake up that thinking a little. Pity is also a judgment. It is true that in this day and age, the stigma around common disorders like anxiety and depression are diminishing. However, there are many disorders out there that are still considered taboo.
A good example of this is my own struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When people hear about my trauma and resulting disorder, the first reaction is usually pity, awkwardness, or even disgust. That is because unless you dealt with trauma, you simply don’t understand it. The same applies to those with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and pretty much any personality disorder. What is essential to understand is that where it might be strange to you, our disorder it normal to us. Empathy and care are fine, but we don’t need your pity.
Listen More then you Speak
It is human to want to help those we care about. When we see someone we love hurting, we NEED to fix it. To do this, we usually try to pull from our own experience to find solutions. This is how you get situations like a person with clinical depression being told that happiness comes from just thinking happy thoughts or eating fewer carbs (true story). But if your experience doesn’t include the same mental health disorder, then your advice isn’t going to make much difference. Instead, just listen. Here is a little secret, therapists don’t do a lot of talking. They listen, allowing the client to work through and process their own emotions. They ask questions and only advise when needed. It is not your job to fix them. If you are truly concerned, then the best thing you can do it point them to those with the education and experience to help. Other than that, your only job is to care.
In the fight to be a good mental health ally, the most important thing you can do is educate yourself. Too often, I see suicide prevention advocates with absolutely no clue how to actually prevent suicide. Support is more than making social media post! It is more than a meme and a hashtag.
Some important things to remember:
- Check your words: OCD is not a description for being organized, you did not get PTSD from a scary sound or movie, and please stop using words like crazy to describe mental health issues! Your words matter, and when you use them, you are representing people who actually struggle with areas of mental health. This can be very damaging.
- Be Careful who you Listen to: There is a lot of misinformation out there written by people with no credentials to give advice. Instead, make sure you are reading the articles of those with the education and experience. Fact check by visiting the websites devoted to awareness and research.
- Think Before You Speak: Don’t share information on mental health that is not accurate, don’t give advice if you are not qualified, be kind!
Misinformation can have dire consequences. No one expects you to be an expert, so when in doubt, there is nothing wrong with admitting you don’t know. Take that whole in your knowledge and learn from it.
Being a mental health ally requires kindness, patience, and humility. Things that no one is capable of 100% of the time. Even therapists who trained for years can struggle when something in their personal lives gets hard. The key is to keep trying, and when you are not able to rise to the occasion, avoid harm by walking away. Supporting those you love with mental health disorders is important but never at the cost of your own mental health. Take care of yourself, and then you will have the energy to spread love to others.