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The Problem With Telling People in Mental Health Crises to 'Reach Out'

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There are so many articles out there now on “asking for help” during a mental health crisis, “reaching out” to the people around you for strength, solace, resources. But I can tell you from experience it is not that simple. I have struggled the majority of my life with depression and anxiety. Most of the time it is well-controlled with a regimen of self-care and medication, as well as a phenomenal therapist. But on rare occasions, it is not. There are times when the sheer barrage of external stresses mixed with my internal landscape, creates the perfect storm of vulnerability and deep pain; I find myself at the edge of the cliff, looking down into an abyss.

One of those times happened very recently. After four months of financial stresses, medical challenges, multiple crises in my job working with others who experience mental health challenges and two very painful relationship issues, I reached my limit. Deeply depressed, highly anxious and completely vulnerable, I reached out to a friend as I sat weeping in a parking lot. I had known her for three years, and she knew about my health issues. I thought she was safe. Her reply cut me off at the knees.

She said I needed to “write a gratitude journal,” that I was “bringing all these negative things on myself with my negative attitude.”

I was blown away. The “negative things” she talked about included a genetic disorder I had since birth and health issues that were occurring with family members and beloved pets, not “negative life choices.” Shortly after that, she cut off all contact with me. I sought support from someone I had known for 20 years, who I had supported through crises of his own. He wrote out a lecture to me on being “so desperately in need of meaningful relationships” and within a week had cut off contact with me as well. I attempted to talk to people in my spiritual community, and was told I should speak to a therapist, which they knew I already had. They had no desire to speak to me about my pain, or to provide any emotional support. The insinuation that came across to me was the weight of my pain was a burden they wanted nothing to do with, and I should shut up and find something positive to concentrate on so they didn’t feel uncomfortable. I was devastated by this, and felt even worse.

I was fortunate there were others who provided support; a co-worker who kept in touch with me during an entire difficult weekend, a long-time friend who listened and made time to meet with me. My college roommate, who called from Colorado to offer support and sent supportive messages for days afterward. A friend of a friend who called after seeing a veiled post online, offering support and insight. A long-time work friend who emailed me almost daily. I was incredibly lucky to have these people. They listened, they were present for me, they made no judgments on me or how badly I felt. They didn’t minimize my illness or my life stresses.

I think it’s important to tell people to reach out during a crisis, but it is also important to realize not everyone will be helpful during a crisis. The reactions of some people actually made things much worse in my situation. I felt even more alone, more worthless, more damaged after each rejection from people I had trusted. The people who are open to hearing about emotional pain are not always the people you expect — the spiritual leaders, the long-time friends, the people you may have helped before. It may be someone you don’t know well, someone on the edges of your life, but someone who has more depth and maturity than the average person. Someone willing to hear and respond to someone else’s pain without judgment. Someone comfortable enough in their own skin they can consider the needs of another person and not simply see it as an unseemly inconvenience.

Living through a mental health crisis can be incredibly hard. There is still stigma around mental health, and many people are unaccustomed to having real emotional depth in their interactions with others, leaving them unlikely to respond well to someone asking for help. The problem is not always that people like me don’t ask for help in crisis — we often do. The real problem, in my opinion, is many people have no idea how to talk to someone in a mental health crisis and can end up making the situation much worse with their negative reactions.

My advice to those who are approached by someone in crisis would be this: simply listen. You don’t have to “fix” us or our situation. Just hear our pain, let us know you care about what we are experiencing. Help us find resources if appropriate. Be present for us — go out to coffee with us, send supportive emails, reach for your phone and call us. We don’t need you to be our therapist or our psychiatrist, but in the middle of a crisis, we need you to hear us, acknowledge us and support us as human beings who are in incredible pain.

Many thanks to the people who reached out to me when I needed it the most, and to the countless people who have reached out and supported others in similar situations. You are worth your weight in gold. May others learn from your example and become more able to provide support to their family members, friends and co-workers during times of crisis.

Getty image by Szepy

Originally published: March 6, 2020
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