I wrote recently about the things to avoid when talking to people with depression and anxiety so I thought I’d offer some different ways to support people. I can really only speak to my own experiences so my suggestions for ways to support people can’t and shouldn’t be universal. What might work for me might not work for another person in large part because there is no universal experience with depression, anxiety, or any mental illness. Also: I am not a mental health professional so what I have to say about mental health both in this specific post and elsewhere is entirely based on my experiences.
Validate Our Experiences and Emotions.
Telling someone about my depression and anxiety in person is always really hard because I’m always worried about how they might respond. And I have a lifetime of people, including those closest to me, who have repeatedly shamed and invalidated the emotions and symptoms I have that come from my depression and anxiety.
This also comes back to realizing that what we say and do might not have the impact we intend it to have. Someone’s fears and anxieties might seem silly or irrelevant to another but that doesn’t mean that they are any less real. And if you make a joke about someone’s anxieties because you don’t see it as real, you’re doing nothing other than alienating and invalidating that person.
One example of this was when I was hanging out at a bar with a few friends and was talking about my dislike of a guy playing pool across the bar. When we were leaving, I got anxious that the guy overheard us and brought it up. One of my friends reassured me that it was too loud for him to hear anything in such a way that validated what I was feeling but also assured me that I didn’t need to be anxious.
Support decisions on therapy and medication.
Not everyone with a mental health problem will go to therapy or be on medication but for some, either one might be beneficial. Whatever decision someone might make, the important thing is to support them through it. But don’t force someone to go through therapy – that should be a personal decision made by the person in question.
This part can vary based on your relationship with someone – it can mean helping someone find the right therapist, not breaking their trust if they tell you about therapy or that they’re on meds (seriously, don’t tell others about someone else’s health or their decisions), not questioning what they talk about in therapy, and more. Another part of this is trusting that someone knows what is best for them but if someone is worrying you, reach out and let them know that you’re there if they need help. And you might have to tell someone this a couple times if need be.
Learn about mental health and mental illness.
This can range from learning about the symptoms of different diagnoses, reading about the ways to be a better support system, unlearning the stereotypes and stigmas of mental illness, etc. Not everyone who struggles with depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness will exhibit the same symptoms or have the same experiences so having a broader understanding of mental health can probably help with specific situations.
There are countless articles, think pieces, posts on social media, and more that highlight different people’s experiences with their own mental illness. Not everyone is going to have the same experience but it might help to better your understanding of what’s happening with a friend or loved one by reading through some of it.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I started to realize the extent to which depression and anxiety controlled my life. Reading and hearing about the experiences of others and realizing how depression manifests in teenagers changed my life because it made me realize just how much of a presence depression has had throughout my life. I often wonder how much different my life would had been if I had people around who had a better understanding of mental health. At the very least, it probably would not have taken so long for me to finally seek help.
Include mental health in your feminism, activism, and advocacy.
This can mean a whole lot of things, like realizing that not everyone’s activism is going to look the same. Having the exact same expectations for every single person does nothing but force people into unrealistic standards. Some people are going to be great at leading or being in the marches, others are going to be great at coordinating the effort to bail people out if they’re arrested, even more are going to be at their best making sure everyone else is eating every day.
Another aspect of this is also advocating for better mental health care. There are too many obstacles that stand in the way of many trying to access health care of any kind; for mental health, these obstacles can be prohibitive in cost and because of stigma. Therapy can cost several hundred dollars each session, medication can be just as expensive, and insurance isn’t always going to cover everything. Advocating for better health care and insurance coverage could help to make those things more accessible to more people.
And there’s the work of ending the stigma around actually having a mental illness and getting help for it. This can range from getting a better understanding of different mental illnesses and their related symptoms to not shaming someone for their mental health to realizing that not everything can be solved by just deciding to be happy.
Realize how race, class, and other identities might interact with mental health.
Being white and upper middle class means that I have an easier time accessing therapy and medication. I’m on a really great insurance plan through my parents and having the support of my family means, which means that it’s significantly easier for me to therapy or been on anti-depressants. Not everyone has that same access and a large factor in that is in fact race and class. For a better reflection on this, Oliver Glass does a really great job of talking about why racial justice needs to include mental health.
All of these things are honestly just some of the things that I know I would love to see from the people in my life. But like I’ve mentioned countless times already, my experience with depression and anxiety is not universal and there’s a lot of privilege that goes into forming those same experiences. My struggle with mental illness is very much formed by class and race – being white and upper middle class gives me generational wealth and access to things that others might not have.
Having more people be more understanding and supportive of those struggling with mental illness would have changed a lot in my own life and I hope it would also make a difference for others. You can’t change someone by fiercely loving and supporting them through their struggles (and please don’t try) but hell, it’ll probably make life just a bit easier.