Mind’s Mental Health Awareness Week started yesterday. I think it’s a brilliant campaign and it shows how far we’ve come in recognising the realities of living with mental illness and how well we understand it. Living at a time when an organisation devotes seven days to fundraising, with a theme (relationships), a hashtag and an activity schedule, is obviously much better than being around during the days when sufferers were chucked in asylums, or had holes drilled in our heads and exorcisms organised on our behalf.
But we still desperately need more. Diagnoses are going up, as public spending on mental health goes down. The government is pledging to provide more financial support because there is a clear need for it – approximately one in four of us will experience a mental-health problem every year. That’s a fairly abstract fraction, until you think about it when you’re on the bus, or doing a big tea round, or at the pub for a birthday. We’re your mates. We walk among you, listening to podcasts and offering you biscuits, and if you ask us how our weekend was, we’re more likely to say, “Lovely, thanks! You?”, than, “Well, I had plans, but I had a big panic attack on Saturday morning and couldn’t face leaving my flat, which was a bugger because I didn’t have any milk in.” Clearly, we need to have bigger, better, more honest conversations about it but, on an individual level, that prospect can be terrifying.
We know that even our most wonderful, kind, intuitive friends might struggle to deal with the realities of what we’re going through, because we’re struggling ourselves. It’s hard to explain exactly what we need from the people around us, because it’s hard to do pretty much everything – on a very bad day, feeding myself and finding clean underwear seems more difficult and daunting than demonstrating nuclear fission with a jam jar and a spoon. Statistically, there’s a strong chance that someone in your life is struggling, and that you wished you knew what to do, but you’re not sure where – or how – to begin. Here’s what I wish I’d been able to tell my friends when I started suffering:
If you don’t know what to say to a suffering friend, you don’t need to say anything, or provide them with any activities. Just be present
“Don’t worry about replying” is the most wonderful phrase in the English language
My lovely Twitter friend Marian sent me the kindest message the other day, ending with this postscript. I cried. This is someone who truly understands! Personally, I find that my anxiety robs me of all perspective, and an unanswered message can send me into a total tailspin. If someone has taken the the time to think of me, failing to answer their question makes me the worst person in the world. I’ll lie awake thinking of how I couldn’t help someone with their work problem, wondering whether a PR is fuming because I’ve failed to reply to a series of emails pitching a hair-loss product, my breath becoming shallow and rapid as I realise I don’t have the words to tell a well-intentioned pal that I really, really don’t want to go for a “cheering-up bowling session”. The best way to show love and support is to get in touch and say, “I love you, I’m thinking of you, I expect nothing from you. I’ll be here when you want to talk, whether that’s tomorrow or in 10 years.”
We’re not looking for advice
Once upon a time, the greatest thing to give, and the worst thing to receive, was the scented candle. Then Diptyque and Cire Trudon were invented and we actively ask for candles for Christmas. The new heir to the bad-gift throne is unsolicited advice. I’m a total hypocrite, because I’m full of it. When on form, I can bore on about bars in Manhattan and haircare until you want to hit me in the face with my own Mason Pearson. But unsolicited advice about dealing with the hell in my head is the least favourite thing in the world. It’s always offered with such love but, when you’re in the depths of despair, you can’t help but feel as though someone has underestimated the problem if they think it can be solved with meditation, gratitude lists or valerian tea. When you say, “This will fix you” to someone who is suffering, to our ears it sounds like, “I cannot deal with you as you are right now.”
Listen and give us a bit of space
I come from a long line of nervous silence-fillers, so I understand how frenzied small talk often streams from us, as we try to plug a gap in a cavernous, swirling vortex of quiet. But I’ve been on the other side too and, on bad days, I feel as though I’m trapped inside Everybody’s Talkin’ by Harry Nilsson. My ears are full, I’m overwhelmed and I just want to escape to sun and sea. If you don’t know what to say to a suffering friend, you don’t need to say anything, or provide them with any activities. Just be present and wait until they’re ready to talk. (And do not suggest that you go bowling. I cannot stress that enough.)
You’ve already helped us more than you’ll ever know
Watching a loved one suffer is horrible and I know that my friends and family sometimes feel completely powerless because they’re not sure how to make me feel better. But I’ve been through bad patches that I haven’t even told them about and they’ve seen me through it with kindness, stupid jokes, pictures of puppies and impromptu barbecues. If you’re in someone’s life, making them laugh and feel loved, you’re helping. We’ll never be able to find enough words to tell you what that means and how grateful we are. Thank you. We love you.
Sali Hughes is away