We often discuss the importance of being an ally in the context of social justice issues. It is essential to be an ally to those groups that are marginalized and underrepresented. To be an ally includes lending your strength and support to those who need it. Does someone suffering from depression and mental health issues also need allies to deal with their illness?
The answer is of course they do. Having positive social support is a significant factor in skills-based therapy. Research shows that it can improve the prognosis for those coping with mental illness. And research also shows that 1 in 4 people suffers from a mental disorder. It more likely than not that you know someone with a mental illness who could use you as an ally. So how can you be an ally to your friends and family who are struggling?
Last year I had a very public panic attack. It was in conjunction with a major depressive episode, and I was no longer able to hide my emotions. When I was feeling better and more social, a good friend asked point blank, “What can I do next time to help?” It was the first time anyone ever asked me that question. I was at a loss for words about what could’ve been done while I was in crisis. After some thought, I came up with some ideas of what a being good ally and supporter should look like.
1. Open eyes and open ears - Don’t pretend not to notice when a friend is apparently in crisis or on the verge of crisis. Don’t be afraid to ask how you can help and give a supportive ear and assistance. When someone is depressed or having anxiety issues, it is easy for them to fall into the darkness and ruminate. We may neglect ourselves or go into isolation. Be as supportive as you are able and try to get your friend or family member out of their head and back into the world around them.
2. Positive words and thoughts - Try to say mainly positive things and encourage them to think some positive thoughts. Some people who suffer from mental health issues can be overly sensitive to distress and conflict around them. Being a supporter goes two ways, but avoid using your loved one as a dumping ground for all your negativity. You don’t want to fall into the trap of the “rubber band effect,” where you have the power to drag down your friend when you are having issues.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask - Like my friend did, it is okay to ask questions about how to be a better ally. This is easier when your friend or family member is not in active crisis. When they are feeling better, they can tell you how to help them when you witness them going down the rabbit hole of emotional pain and despair.
4. Don’t be afraid to act - If someone talks about harming themselves or others, don’t blow that off as them being overly dramatic. This could be a sign that they need professional help from a therapist or even a trip to the ER for an emergency evaluation. If you can’t encourage them to make their own phone call, do it for them. It is better to be overly cautious than live with the regret that you could and should’ve made the call to prevent a disaster.
5. Inform yourself - There is a lot of stigma and not enough openness when it comes to mental health issues. If someone has been willing to open up about their problems, that is a sign of vulnerability and trust that should not be taken lightly. This is a chance to get educated about their condition, which can help you understand what they're going through. Learning more about their condition can also teach you how you can be an even better supporter.
Of course, these are suggestions, and you always have the option to drop a friendship or relationship that has become toxic. Even clear boundaries can become muddled and you can find yourself having to take on more and more of someone else’s despair. If this continues you will find your own mental health suffering. This article has a great list of statements you can use when you find that circumstances are such that you can’t be an effective supporter to a loved one anymore.
Also, you may find you have to drop friendships when you are dealing with people suffering from mental illness who are not willing to take steps to improve themselves and their condition. They decide they want to use you merely as a sewage pipe for all their negative energy. If this is the case, for your own mental health, you may need to walk away. You can continue to send positive energy their way in hopes that they will get the help they need.
On the whole, however, most people suffering from mental illness are trying to get better, want to get better, and by confiding in you, are hoping that you can be a supporter through the good and bad times.
Thank you for agreeing to be an ally.
In June 2018, I sat for the Chartered Financial Analyst Level 2 exam. As I sat in a large exhibition hall among budding financial professionals, I realized I had no idea why I spent the last ten months of my life studying for this exam. I did not want to do anything that needed a CFA designation and I doubt I ever would.
When our family therapist used the term “productive procrastination” during one of our sessions, it immediately all made sense. This whole time I was using exams, cleaning and other “productive” activities merely as procrastination from more pressing things that I did not want to do. Namely, finding a fulfilling career or dealing with family stress.
Following this, I read up more about the differences between avoidance and distraction. Distraction is finding healthy, time-limited ways to take a break before returning to thoughts or activities that are causing distress. Avoidance is defined by unhealthy and untimed activities where there is really no intention of getting back to what is causing the distress.
Productive procrastination falls into the avoidance bucket. By sitting for the CFA, I used that big undertaking as a way to avoid the more significant issue of finding a career path. By sorting my son’s Legos by color and size, I avoided dealing with the anxiety that comes with parenting. Productive procrastination may seem amazing because you’re being productive, but it doesn’t allow you to advance your values in any way. With the CFA, it just gave me a new form of stress I might otherwise not have had.
So how do you get out of the productive procrastination trap? I’ve come up with a straightforward strategy for tackling avoidance disguised as productivity.
Step One: Pause. First, just pause and ask yourself, why am I doing this? Why am I grinding questions on derivatives at midnight on a Saturday? Why am I trying to decide whether or not the yellow and green Legos should be in separate containers? If you don’t have a good answer to that question, this might be a red flag you should not be doing it.
Step Two: Distract. Find a healthy and time-limited distraction. It’ll depend on your situation, but in my case of sitting for the CFA exam, I should have stopped studying and gone to read a good book or called a friend. I could have played with Legos with my son instead of sorting them obsessively. A recent distraction I’ve fallen in love with is doing craft miniature kits. The only caveat is not to let whatever activity you engage in turn into avoidance. The last thing you need is to be avoiding the thing that you are using to avoid some underlying issue.
Step Three: Reflect. After you have had this healthy distraction, you move to the hard part – reflection. Ask yourself the "Why?" question again. Ask yourself if what you are doing is advancing your values. If at this point still don’t have a good answer, then move onto step four.
Step Four: Drop. This is the hardest step. While reflecting, you asked yourself some questions. In this final step, you have to take action. Dropping involves quitting the productive avoidance activity you got yourself stuck into. It can be easy to drop an activity if it’s something like cleaning obsessively or working on some craft project that’s taken on a life of its own. Dropping is a lot harder when it’s something you’ve sunk a lot of time, money and effort into. In that case, remind yourself of the sunk cost fallacy and spend more time reflecting on your values: is what you’re doing in or out of line with your values? This could also be a good time to call up some emotional supporters who can give you a perspective on the situation and help you drop this avoidance.
During the CFA study days, I really tried hard to remind myself of the sunk cost fallacy. But, I convinced myself that there was too much money, time and effort on the line and I sat for the test anyway. I wish I had spent more time going through these four steps, but I did not. As a result, I got a costly lesson in what was essentially unproductive productivity.
So next time you find yourself doing something that is probably avoidance disguising itself as productivity do these four things: pause, find a healthy distraction, reflect and finally drop it and get back to living in line with your values.
I’ll admit it; I suffer from social anxiety. It’s mostly kept under control through medication.
I get invited to a wedding, a networking event, or even just a private party with friends and I freak out a little. What will I say the wrong thing? How will people perceive me? There’s always a host of questions swirling around my brain that are neither helpful to the situation or positive for my self-esteem.
In the days leading up to my sister-in-law’s wedding I was so crippled by anxiety that I had an uptick in drinking, lashing out at others and even suicidal ideation. Even though I did not have any involvement with the wedding or the planning, just the thought of seeing my husband’s family and his sister’s future family as well as all the other people was paralyzing. I’ve had similar reactions to smaller events like a team meeting or even just going out in public.
Recently in group therapy we discussed social anxiety and what one can do when faced with the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that come with leaving your comfort zone and dealing with the world. Here are the takeaways I found helpful and have since put into practice:
This is all way easier said than done. Even I acknowledge that I struggle with going to events and dealing with people, especially as I get apprehensive in new situations. However, try some of these skills over time and you may alleviate some of your social anxiety and get a bit of relief.
Good luck, close your browser and go to that party.