This hashtag starts trending each time we hear someone succumbed to depression or mental health disorders. Up go videos, social media updates, newspaper articles, blog posts, and more.
But like other horrific events, these tragedies make the headlines for a few days before they lie forgotten.
You hate reading about it, don’t you? Why did they give their lives up? Life, which is precious and rare! It may not be a bed of roses. Hell, it may have a hundred thorns for every rose. Yet, it’s beautiful. And they gave it up.
Maybe you knew someone who suffered from depression or anxiety disorders. You wished you could’ve helped them get back on their feet. You wished you could’ve made them believe that life was more than what they thought. You wished you could’ve told them it would be okay. Maybe you did. But they didn’t listen.
Eventually, you lost touch. Or they did something drastic. If only…
In today’s dog-eat-dog world, expectations weigh us down… at work, in relationships, among friends, and everywhere else, leading to absurd levels of stress and anxiety. And stress is the single largest contributor to less heritable mental health issues like depression and anxiety disorders.
I experienced something damningly close a few years ago. I was in the worst state of mind I’ve ever been in. I was in a relationship which sucked every ounce of positivity out of me. It was like my soul abandoned me and in its place, left such a deep hollow that the echoes of self-deprecating thoughts reverberated 24/7.
I, the witty, sensible, and fun-to-be-with dude (or so I thought), was drowning. And people were sitting on the banks, either ordering me to swim, or secretly rejoicing.
But three friends of mine – none of whom knew each other – saved me. It took six painful months for me to get out. (Six months might not sound like long. But to me, they felt like an eternity.) And through those six months, Roopa, Purvesh and Sumit stuck with me like moss on a damp rock. Thanks to them, I could lead a normal life again. Not just that, I evolved because of what I learned. But more about that in another post.
This post is not addressed to people who’re experiencing mental health issues. There are plenty of do’s and don’ts for them online. This is for you, if you know someone (or come across one) who’s in a delicate state of mind.
I want to draw parallels between how my friends helped me get out of my deeply riddled anxiety, and what you can do to help if someone close to you is in a similar condition.
[Disclaimer: This post is based on experience more than science. It doesn’t claim to make you an expert in helping someone with mental health issues if they need a therapist. But you can put them in a better frame of mind. One where they can see the silver lining behind frighteningly dark clouds, or agree to get professional help.]
1. Don’t Make it About You
When I was emotionally disturbed, I reached out to someone who called me her ‘be-e-e-e-s-t friend’. In fact, she was the first person I turned to. But within two days, she stopped returning my calls. So much for be-e-e-e-s-t friends.
Remember, this situation is not about you. It’s not about your discomfort, ego, anxiousness, or desire to control the outcome. If you truly want to help someone, get these out of the way and focus on their needs instead.
The most fundamental, yet underrated thing you can do, is to listen.
An hour-long conversation, where they speak for ten minutes and you speak for fifty, is not listening. Neither is the “I-would-never-have-done-what-you’re-doing” dialogue. Or the typical, “it’s all in your head. You just don’t want to get it out.”
Of course you wouldn’t do what they’re doing right now. Neither would they, in a sane state of mind.
But you don’t know how the mind plays tricks. I speak (or write) from experience. You don’t know how you would’ve fared if you were in their shoes. You might have done better, or you might have done worse! Overestimating yourself and underestimating others is a cardinal sin.
Listen. Give them the freedom to pour their hearts out. You don’t have to make them believe in the power of positivity yet. You don’t have to PUSH them to ‘get over it’ or get help against their wishes. You don’t have to prove how much you care for them by freaking out, or getting angry or upset when you talk to them. Just give them an empathetic (not sympathetic) ear.
On an emotional level, the brain is designed to mirror one another, explains Martha Beck. When you’re anxious and controlling while listening to someone, they don’t respond with compliance. Instead, they reflect you by becoming anxious and controlling (or defensive) themselves. Anger evokes anger, fear evokes fear, no matter how well meaning you are. When you open your horizons and listen to them non-judgmentally, they mirror your relaxation and begin to request the advice you’re welcome to give them.
3. What Do They Want?
You don’t know how they feel. Then how can you assume what they want?
They might want circumstances to improve. Or someone else to like them. Or they might want to be in a better mind state. The first and second conditions are not in their control. The third is.
When you listen, you identify what they truly want. Once you’ve got your finger on their pulse, you can prepare for the next course of action.
I remember feeling miserable about being stuck in my mess. I wanted to get out, but couldn’t find a way. My friends listened to me and intermittently shared pearls of wisdom. Those pearls didn’t change things immediately. But over time, they impacted me tremendously and have largely shaped how I am today.
Most importantly, my friends were patient.
4. Be Patient
People stuck in a defeated state of mind feel like an empty plastic bag on a busy highway – they’re surrounded by others but feel completely out of place.
They know what they must do. They want to reach a better inner state. But rationale takes a back seat and stressful emotions run high. This is when they need your patience and understanding the most. I know because….. oh well, it’s getting boring now, isn’t it?
Acknowledge that your affected friend or family member will take time to improve emotionally. Accept it. As badly as you want, you can’t pull them out of their mindset immediately. It’s slow. It’s painful. And yes, it’s bloody frustrating. Ask my friends.
I once asked Roopa to meet me at a mall close by. She traveled twenty minutes to get there. When she reached, I said I was in no mood to meet her. And I was just three minutes away from the mall! (Yes I know, I was being a jerk.) Yet, she continued answering my calls thereafter. It assured me.
Roopa stuck with me for almost the entirety of my low emotional state. She stopped talking just a month before I rediscovered myself. It sucks, mainly because she gave birth to her first child within a few months, and I missed it.
5. Change Their Experience
This is the most important thing you can do for someone in a delicate mental state. Change their experiences. Take them to different places when you can; some place where they can forget their worries.
My friends took me to my favorite pubs and restaurants. Sumit dragged my kicking and screaming body to watch downright boring movies. And he let me drive his car often because it lifted my mood, albeit for just a few minutes.
Don’t indulge affected people in the same boring activities. Do something which rejuvenates them. Take them to the great outdoors. Help them meet more people. Have fun. Let them share a laugh with others.
The more their experiences change, the faster they realize that life is more than their current experience. The result, as mentioned above, won’t be visible immediately, like an Aspirin. But as time progresses, it works wonders.
They might oppose you when you offer to take them into the great outdoors. That’s okay. You can accept their “no” sometimes. On other instances, remind them of what they really want (point #2) and that this will help. On yet other instances, just drag them out to enjoy an ice cream.
Trust me, they’ll thank you later. I did.
6. Help Them Start a Gratitude Diary
Changes in experience give affected people plenty to think and be happy about. Encourage them to jot down just three things they’re grateful for. Shawn Achor explains in his bestselling book, The Happiness Advantage:
When you write down a list of three good things that happened that day, your brain will be forced to scan the last 24 hours for potential positives – things that brought small or large laughs, feelings of accomplishment at work, a strengthened connection with the family, a glimmer of hope for the future……
In one experiment, Chad Burton and Laura King instructed people to write about a positive experience for 20 minutes three times a week and then compared them to a control group who wrote about neutral topics. Not only did the first group experience larger spikes of happiness, but three months later, they had even lesser symptoms of illness.
If someone misses writing in their journal for a day or two, it’s okay. Practiced over time, this will make affected people develop emotional resilience faster.
(P.S. Use one yourself too.)
You Can Help
There is no quick and easy way to address such issues. Nor can you, unless certified, provide professional help to affected people. But you can help them stabilize. You can put them in a state of mind to view their lives in a better light, or step outside their zone of fear and ask for professional help.
You can change someone’s life. Better yet, you can save it. Roopa, Sumit and Purvesh saved mine, and I’m eternally indebted to them. Your tiny steps can become giant steps which turn someone’s life around.