As many of you will already know, last week was the UK’s annual mental health awareness week – a campaign hosted by the Mental Health Foundation to raise money and awareness for mental health worldwide. This is something extremely prevalent in modern society which has only recently started to be addressed in the western world. The education on it (and indeed the knowledge we actually have) is so poor that people don’t know what it feels like, what it looks like, or how to help a friend in need.
As someone who has suffered for years from poor mental health and supported friends and family through it, I wanted to write something to help anyone who needs help with coping themselves or supporting someone they love. However, I would first like to address an FAQ – why are mental illnesses such as chronic depression and anxiety so prevalent in Humans? You don’t often hear about Lions or Monkeys in the wild exhibiting anxious or depressed behaviours, or OCD, or personality disorders. The short answer, according to most modern theories, is because we are not in the wild, and just like animals in captivity (who suffer massively from poor mental health), we too are not living in our natural state.
H. Sapiens, us, have not lived in our natural order for thousands of years since the agricultural revolution. The rate of evolution is such that nothing has changed in us biologically, and so the natural behaviours which are deeply embedded in our genome have had no time to adapt to our reality. The same goes for animals which are kept in unethical confinement: They can develop a condition known as “Zoochosis” – a vague term which describes their severe mental illness. All the same, highly natural occurrences can cause problems too, and this affects all rational creatures. A Dog may become depressed when its owner dies; a Tiger starves itself for days when it miscarriages its cub.
“the natural behaviours which are deeply embedded in our genome have had no time to adapt to our reality.”
Back to the matter at hand. How can you support yourself, your family, your friends, when suffering from poor mental health?
I started noticing issues with my mental health when I was around 15. I wasn’t able to identify what was going on at all, all I knew was that something didn’t feel right. I had a strong group of friends, I was doing well in classes, I didn’t typically get stressed about anything; but it was a massive transitional period for me. Times like these where the world around you changes faster than you can adjust put you in a very precarious position. They may affect your lifestyle, your perspective, your values, and other things which people shouldn’t naturally have to deal with, but the sheer size and scope of modern society is such that we have to go through many phases of adjustment in our lifetime. Some people may happen to be more resilient or adaptable to these changing times, but that does not mean they are superior in any way: different people react differently to things, and it’s as simple as that.
“Times like these where the world around you changes faster than you can adjust put you in a very precarious position.”
There are 3 important lessons to be learned here: firstly, you may be suffering and have no idea how or why it’s happening. Secondly, you may have many people close to you who are all in the same boat – people who are secretly suffering. Lastly, look out for yourself and for the people you care about during these transitional phases. When you don’t keep these early days in check, that’s when things begin to manifest and get out of hand.
Anxiety’s Subconscious Manifestations
The way anxiety hits you is very much from within your own head, based on the types of thoughts which it causes and the feelings they provoke. It can manifest very differently for every individual, seemingly based on how that individual thinks, or what past experiences they may have. Some people obtain severe mood problems, others victimise themselves. These are subconscious coping mechanisms. A classic example of this is relationship jealousy – one individual may feel insecure about themselves, and subconsciously convince themselves, with no supporting evidence, that their partner’s genuinely platonic friendship is a threat. These are the symptoms, not the disease. Recognising the distinction between rational and irrational thoughts is the basis of managing one’s anxiety.
If you are suffering from frequent anxious thoughts, then it is your responsibility to reflect on these thoughts and analyse whether they are rational. If you have a friend or partner who you fear is suffering from irrational thoughts, try to persuade them to consider these from an unbiased perspective in a state of calm. There is one very simple but effective exercise for analysing the rationality of your own thoughts – the 5 “why?”’s. When you have an anxious thought or feeling, ask yourself why; and then again, “why?”; and again, and again, and once more. This is usually sufficient for finding the root of the problem, the disease itself, rather than the symptoms which have manifested as a result of it. Here is an example of an irrational train of thought vs a rational one:
These irrational thoughts, feelings, and/or beliefs can have a hugely negative effect on your relationships with anyone who is close to you, or anyone who potentially could be. It can cause you to feel confused, hopeless, empty, and worthless, leading to depression. You can develop extremes of mood, a lack of sense of self, and severe trust issues.
“Recognising the distinction between rational and irrational thoughts is the basis of managing one’s anxiety.”
After leaving school I let irrational trains of thought like these carry on and take over my life so severely that I had heart palpitations which caused me to pass out, out of body experiences so strong I lost my sense of self entirely, and trust issues so strong that I convinced myself I was adopted (no joke). I, along with the vast majority of people who suffer this way, developed a number of coping mechanisms which just made everything a lot worse.
Short-Term Coping Mechanisms
There are countless ways in which people try to cope with the manifestations of anxiety and depression. The most common are building walls around oneself to cause social exclusion, or the very opposite – surrounding oneself with others to combat feelings of loneliness and forget their internal issues. The first is a type of self-harm (probably the most prevalent coping mechanisms in the world), and the second is a kind of void-filling strategy.
Self-harm is the act of an individual causing physical or emotional pain to themselves in order to feel better. Most picture it as someone cutting themselves with a razor-blade, but the reality is that ‘regular’ things such as listening to sad music, overthinking, or the aforementioned self-exclusion of a social life are much more common methods. In all cases, the person is fueling their sad feelings and anxious disposition whether they even mean to or know it. The vast majority of people who physically self-harm would tell you that this is how it started for them – whenever they felt sad or lonely they would watch the notebook and cry, or writhe in bed while following some horrific train of thought until one day that wasn’t enough anymore.
There are many reasons why self-harming can help a person cope with their mental health: for example, to get a short-term high from the pain; to punish themselves; or even to show the outside world on their body what emotional trauma they are dealing with inside their head. The most key thing when it comes to someone you love harming themselves is to not judge them for their actions. First and foremost, if they had the courage to tell you about this or let you see, it was because they trusted you enough to confide in you, and they need your support. Secondly, it’s okay to not understand why the person is doing this to them self. I physically self-harmed intermittently for a few years, and every time I did it was to actualise my emotional pain by converting it to a physical form, not for any of the reasons stated before. I would never presume to understand how self-harm could help in any other way than how it has helped me – you don’t need to understand it to support someone, you just need to accept it.
“if they had the courage to tell you about this or let you see, it was because they trusted you enough to confide in you, and they need your support.”
The next big coping mechanism, which is usually more applicable to depression than anxiety, is void-filling. This is when an individual’s innate sense of emptiness or hopelessness is filled by an external source (a partner, a friend, or perhaps a gang) and this gives them a sense of fulfillment and belonging. The reason that it’s a very brittle solution is because the person will rely solely on this external force for their stability, happiness, and fulfillment. Happiness should come from within and should then be shared with the rest of the world, not the other way around.
Other common coping mechanisms include escapism and short-term highs (from drugs, unsafe sex, crime, etc).
Now that we’ve covered a bunch of warning signs and things to avoid, let’s look at some of the things which you can actually do to help yourself and/or others. I’ve compiled a list of effective, long-term solutions which helped me and some of the people I know:
Validate, Accept, Challenge
Only when my thoughts were challenged, and my feelings validated by someone else did things begin to improve. This outside validation from a close friend immediately made an astonishing difference to my view of myself. Before this point I believed I had no reason or right to feel the way I felt; I was in complete denial that anything serious was wrong; and I wouldn’t have even considered seeking professional help. All of this changed from something as simple as a friend telling me I’d been through a lot and not showed it.
I sought professional help – psychiatric, psychotherapeutic, and counselling. The main thing they teach you in any approach is mindfulness in the form of rational introspection. Introspection is simply critical self-analysis, so rational introspection involves taking an unbiased, rational, and critical look at yourself, your thoughts, beliefs, values, and morals, and reflecting on them from a state of calm. Doing this will allow you to reach the root of whatever underlying issues are affecting you and find suitable solutions.
Having a strong support network is crucial for treating any mental health problems. Your support network is a group or combination of people who provide emotional and practical support to you. A very important thing to remember is that all of your support can not come from one individual, as this will be less effective and will drive a wedge between you and them, potentially making your relationship with that person very toxic, and thus minimizing your emotional support – it’s not fair on you or the individual; it’s not healthy; and you will end up resenting each other a lot.
A good minimum number of people to confide in is 3. This will give you a range of views and better variety of advice, and keep all your relationships healthy and happy. The main people in your support network may be your parents, carers, guardians, siblings, close friends, and therapists.
It can be very helpful and rewarding to have some kind of hobby or routine which can help you vent strong emotions without having to talk about them. Expressing yourself through art, music, or writing can help you produce something tangible which can help you understand your emotions when you feel lost. Taking out anger and frustration with exercise can simultaneously take your mind off things and release endorphins, as well as keep you fit.
These expressive, creative, and intense activities can help you vent emotions in the short-term while you remain healthily working on your issues in the long-term.
There are lots of straightforward and easy to implement lifestyle changes which can instantly make you feel a million times better in your day-to-day life. The first is sleep: The average person doesn’t get even close to the right amount of sleep each day. For teens and young adults, you should be having 9 hours and 15 minutes of shut-eye in every 24 hours. As you get older this recommended daily amount drops to 8 and then 7 hours for elderly people. Consistent, uninterrupted, good quality sleep has been proven to be essential for the brain’s emotional development.
Second is hydration. Even very mild dehydration can have an incredible influence on mood and cognition. The effect that a lack of water can have on you can increase the severity of depression (through fatigue and intuition).
Diet is another key part of anyone’s lifestyle which can act as a massive factor in mental health. Every day your brain uses, and even produces, billions of neurons, which are directly responsible for your thoughts. A healthy balance of vitamins and minerals is essential for the conversion of amino acids to neurotransmitters. Additionally, there are countless studies which illustrate the relationship between dietary diseases such as heart disease or type-2 diabetes and depression.
Yet another obvious lifestyle choice which can influence your mood massively is exercise. As most of you are probably aware, exercise causes your body to release endorphins, which hijack the brain’s pleasure sensors in a similar way to stimulant drugs (but naturally and healthily), boosting mood and productivity.
Self-actualisation is the realisation of one’s true potential by giving a sense of enlightenment which allows a person to pursue a fulfilling path. It creates ambition, allowing a person to become more than just themselves, and can spark creative ideas, motivation, and innovation. Having a dream, a vision, or a greater purpose to devote your life to can be the cherry on top of the cake for some people’s recovery from mental illness.
So, to sum up, here are some simple DO‘s and DON’T‘s when coping with or supporting another’s mental illness:
- DO look out for yourself and loved ones whenever they are going through a transitional phase
- DO analyse your thoughts and be critical – but remain positive
- DO focus on things you are grateful for. This can help reprogram your mind to focus on the good things in your life, improving your mood
- DO confide in someone, or seek professional help, if you don’t feel quite right and can’t explain it
- DO suggest building stronger support networks to loved ones who are suffering (if they are putting everything on you)
- DO validate your friends feelings in times of emotional turmoil
- DO challenge your thoughts from an unbiased and rational standpoint
- DO build a strong support network around yourself, and practice constructive communication
- DO develop strategies of emotional outlet for yourself and loved ones
- DO get enough consistent, uninterrupted, good quality sleep
- DO eat a healthy and varied diet
- DO drink enough water
- DO get plenty of exercise throughout the week
- DO find your passion and pursue your dreams
- DON’T judge someone for having poor or even severe mental health even if there is no clear reason
- DON’T refrain from helping someone who has (or would) help you in a time of need
- DON’T surround yourself with people or material wishes to fill an emotional void
- DON’T seek short-term highs from drugs, violence, or unsafe sex
- DON’T surrender to your illness – no matter how severe it is, there is always hope
- DON’T hold onto bottled up emotions until you reach breaking point
- DON’T judge someone who self-harms or has suicidal thoughts
- DON’T judge what you don’t understand
I sincerely hope that this will be helpful for someone out there who is suffering or struggling to support a friend. There is so much potential in every individual, and so many people who are willing and able to help.