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.