Yesterday was Bell Let’s Talk day. Last year, it raised over $6.5 million for mental health initiatives. Over $85 million has been donated toward mental health since its inception. I don’t know about you, but that seems pretty significant to me. We talk about ending stigma, and I’m all for it, but I’m also practical and always ask the question, “So how is this doing something to help people on a practical level?” This is what I really appreciate about Bell Let’s Talk Day – that it not only starts a conversation about mental health, and normalizes the experience, but it’s also using the conversation to drive innovation and services to help those impacted by mental health.
I sat down to write this article yesterday, but I just couldn’t. I’d initially wanted to write an article as a part of Bell Let’s Talk, but it just wasn’t going to happen. See, yesterday marked another anniversary for me and for one of my very best friends. Yesterday was the anniversary of my friend losing her life to mental health. I’d known her since I was about 6 years old and her brother is one of my best friends. We grew up together, experienced life together, and both experienced the ups and downs. She was a firecracker of a personality, a talented musician, adventurer, pusher of boundaries, and more recently, a mother.
As many of us do, she tried all sorts of things to deal with her difficulties, some proactive, and some reactive; some helpful, and some not so much. Nothing seemed to work, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. This is the reality for some – no matter what is tried, the symptoms are still there. I know I’ve had counselling clients who have sat in my office saying, “Andrew, I feel like I’ve tried everything, and nothing is making this go away.” I’ll tell you, as a professional, there’s nothing that makes me feel quite so powerless. But this is the reality for some, and I know this from my own personal experience with mental health – sometimes we try everything and nothing makes it go away.
What then? Do we give up? Do we throw in the towel and just come to terms with the fact that mental health problems are here to stay regardless of what we do? Absolutely not. If this was how I felt, quite frankly, Alongside You would not exist. My clients will often hear me say that I don’t believe in hopeless cases, and it’s true. I can’t promise my clients that we can make the anxiety, depression, psychosis, or trauma go away; I wish I could believe me! I do believe, however, that there is always hope – no matter how awful things are, there is always hope. I’d like to propose three things that bring hope for those of us who struggle with mental health, and those who support others in their struggle.
The word empathy has been gaining traction and is being talked about more and more, and I couldn’t be happier about it. See, empathy is very different than sympathy. Sympathy is often our natural reaction, likely in response to our own pain over the suffering of others. We want to make it go away so we try to make it sound less awful. It’s really an attempt to soothe ourselves, but it has the opposite effect on the person we’re trying to help. Brené Brown gives a great definition of empathy in this video, and I encourage you to watch it; it only takes a few minutes. The take-home message, however, is that empathy drives connection, sympathy creates disconnection. A connection is what we need, particularly when we’re in pain because words rarely make something better, as Brené Brown notes, what makes it better is the connection.
A connection is being used as a buzz word in many circles these days (particularly in business), but what does it really mean to connect? It depends on the context. It could send a text message, it could be getting together over coffee, or it could be something deeper. All of these options can be good things to do with people struggling with mental health, but I want to highlight one thing that I think gets in the way of connecting, and that is fear. Mental health can be a scary thing, especially if we don’t have lived experience with it ourselves. What do we say? How do we respond? What if we don’t understand?
The beauty of empathy, and of connecting with someone on any level, is that we don’t need to understand, we just need be with them. Even though I’ve had my own difficulties with mental health over the years, I still don’t understand everything my clients, friends, colleagues, or family members experience. Some of what I come across is scary or makes me feel helpless, or downright confused. But if I remember that I don’t have to understand, I just have to connect, I can get past the fear and be with the person.
If you’re not sure how to be with the person, just ask them. This not only alleviates the pressure of having to figure out what the person needs and understand what’s going on, it empowers the person to tell you what they need, which in and of itself is beneficial. Remember, we are not dealing with issues, we are dealing with people.
Finally, I want to highlight the importance of educating ourselves. I know I just said we don’t need to understand all the time in order to be there with someone, but some understanding sure does help. It also acts as an antidote to fear so that we can be ourselves with others as they are in their pain and suffering. There are so many resources now to educate ourselves on mental health it’s amazing. Here’s a few to start with:
We hope our blog is also a resource for you. If you have topics you’d like to see addressed on the blog, please contact us with what you’d like to know more about and we’ll do our best to address it in an upcoming post.
You Are Not Alone
If you’re reading this and you are struggling, please know that you are not alone. Struggling in silence, while I can completely understand it, isn’t going to get you the help you need. I know from my own journey that if I’d spoken up, and talked about it more when I was at my worst, life could have been a lot better and the suffering could have been much less.
Please reach out; whether it’s to us at Alongside You, to your local mental health team, to your family, your friends, your pastor, or otherwise, please reach out to someone so they can connect with you and ask how it is they can help.
You are loved.