Don’t ever become a therapist, you suck at it. I was told two weeks ago by a loved one who had reached out to me because they were feeling low. This person is very close to me and has been struggling with anxiety related to the pandemic. For three months we have had heart-to-heart conversations a couple of times. We have been sharing memes back and forth to keep each other cheerful. So when they called in crying, I got blindsided and scared, and I ended up saying all the things that I wasn’t supposed to.
The minute I disconnected the call and my anger and panic had subsided, I realised how careless I had been. I immediately reached out to a counsellor and connected her with my dear one. For someone who had been into therapy for a year due to depression, I thought I was ready to help others in need of a shoulder to cry on, turns out I wasn’t.
Are we all emotionally and intellectually equipped to help out a loved one dealing with depression or anxiety?
In wake of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, last Sunday, I have been seeing a lot of posts on social media, of people asking others to reach out to them, in case they are feeling low. “Let us have a chat” or “I am here for you” or “we can get through this together” such posts read. And not just social media, the overall resolve to address mental health issues in friend circles and in our homes has gone up. This is a much-needed breakthrough.
But my recent experience has raised some questions which I think we all need to ask ourselves. What exactly is our strategy when a person feeling low “reaches out” to us? Are we all emotionally and intellectually equipped to help out a loved one dealing with depression or anxiety? Are we mentally prepared to shoulder the extra baggage that a person is willing to unload on us?
Now, I have been advocating the importance of breaking all sorts of taboos around mental health for years. Having suffered from depression and having undergone therapy, I know why mental health issues need to be addressed and taken care of as urgently as any other health ailment. But it was only after the said experience did I realise that it is one thing to champion mental health, and another to take matters of other people’s well being into your hands untrained for the job.
Helping someone cope with mental health issues isn’t possible with a one-time conversation that you have over chai or on-off chit chats over DM. You have to be consistent, persistent and you must know what exactly to say and when, else you may end up making matters worse for them like I almost did. Besides, all of us carry our own emotional baggage and while this offer to help out maybe well-intended, one has to keep in mind what kind of impact such an ordeal can have on your mental health, especially under current circumstances.
Does this mean it is a bad idea to help people out who are feeling that they are not okay? No. In a 2011 study conducted on respondents who had sought help from family members and friends for depression, 51.3 percent of participants cited only advantages of seeking such help, while six percent cited the only disadvantages. The advantages listed by them were social support provision, background knowledge, opportunity to offload the burden of depression, accessibility, etc. So yes, helping out those in need of mental health care is a step in the right direction. However, we need to have a clearer idea of what we are walking into and how to proceed.
We need to draw a clear line beyond which we have to ask a mental health professional to step in.
While I was reading up on the weekend on how one can help someone in need of mental health care, I found an article on The Cut, in which Dr Laura Rosen, a clinical psychologist and the author of When Someone You Love Is Depressed pointed out, “I think it’s really important that you don’t feel like you have to fix it, but just be curious and listen to your friends’ experience.”
I reached out to counselling psychologist Meenal Varangaokar to know what are the dos and don’ts of helping out someone with mental health issues, and here’s her checklist.
- Keep any one of their caretaker/ family member informed about their symptoms. They need that monitoring since we may not be able to gauge the severity. (Mandatory if the person experiencing depressive symptoms is underaged.)
- Listen to them carefully… And that means paying attention to their verbal as well as non-verbal cues.
- Give them their space to talk uninterruptedly.
- Let them cry as much as they want to… it can really prove to be therapeutic.
- Refer them to a professional who’ll be in a better position to help them.
- Undermine their situation or tell them how others have it worse.
- Ever say that they are overthinking about the situation.
- Give them advice and suggestions.
- Never blame them for their feelings.
- *Promise* them that things will get better.
We need to draw a clear line beyond which we have to ask a mental health professional to step in. If you feel that a person’s mental health condition is not getting better or is worsening despite your help, or if you feel your own wellbeing is being affected, perhaps it is time to tap out and let a professional take over. In fact, if you have a loved one who is depressed, why not ask their therapist for advice on how you can help out better?
It was high time that mental wellness became a mainstream discussion in our society, but while we are talking about it, now is also to time to ask, what next? How do we take the conversation and the desire to help others further in the right direction?
Photo by Gus Moretta on Unsplash
The views expressed are the author’s own.
If you believe you or another individual is suffering a mental health crisis or other medical emergency, contact your doctor immediately.
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