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4 Simple Ways You Can Be an Ally to the Mental Health Community

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Only 25 percent of people struggling with mental illness feel that others are caring and compassionate toward those with mental illness.  I think this perceived lack of kindness is informed by the centuries of oppression people struggling with mental illness have faced at the hands of those without mental illness — institutionalization, damaging medical procedures, ill treatment and isolation.  However, by examining your own language, actions and biases, you can have the power to spread empathy to people struggling with mental illness and become a caring and supportive ally, which could help change perceptions of mental health conditions and might decrease the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Here are four simple ways to become a strong, compassionate ally to the mental health community:

1. Listen when someone discloses their mental illness — and show empathy.

For many people, disclosure can be one of the most challenging aspects of living with mental illness. In our society, mental illness is still widely considered unfit for discussion.  This attitude can easily provoke fear in those who want or need to disclose their mental health status, but by showing empathy, you can help alleviate the trepidation surrounding disclosure.  If someone chooses to open up to you about their mental health, understand that it is likely difficult for them and know that one of the best things you can do is listen and respond with care.  Be aware of others’ emotions when they are disclosing. (Do they seem nervous?  Emotional?  Hesitant?) And try to put yourself in their position, responding to them how you would want someone to respond to you.  Lean into the conversation.  Do not interrupt anyone while they are disclosing their mental illness and only respond to clarify how they are feeling.  Your words and actions during disclosure will allow others to freely discuss their mental health at an incredibly vulnerable time, which will establish you as a safe confidant, and in doing so, will begin to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.

2. Educate yourself about the history of mental health stigma.

The stigma surrounding mental illness is rooted in a long, sordid history of oppression, but understanding the history behind the current attitude toward mental illness can help you understand why many people living with mental illness feel silenced in our society and can reinforce the importance of eliminating the mental health stigma.  For centuries, those with mental illness were routinely subjected to being gaped at by the general public in “freak shows,” institutionalized under unlivable conditions, or outcast by their families and left to fend for themselves on the streets.  With the rise of the frontal lobotomy in the 1950s as a potential “cure” for various mental health conditions, many people living with mental illness were forced to undergo this “treatment,” which, by today’s standards, violated medical ethics.  Consequently, those who underwent lobotomies experienced dulled emotions and behavioral changes, which significantly reduced their quality of life.  Society’s attempt to cover up the history of oppression people with mental illness have faced heavily contributes to the oppression people with mental illness still face in society and to the silence surrounding mental health.  By educating yourself on the deeply-engrained prejudices surrounding mental illness, you might arrive at a more thorough understanding of why so many people feel pressured to remain silent about their mental illnesses — and become inspired to change the long-standing narrative of oppression for people with mental illness.

3. Change the language you use to describe mental illness.

Language is powerful.  The language you choose to describe both people struggling with mental illness and unpleasant occurrences in everyday life can change deeply-rooted perceptions of those with mental illness.  Certain words, like “crazy” and “insane,” harm the mentally ill population because they have devolved into terms used to denigrate those with mental illness and reinforce the deleterious stereotypes that contribute to the mental health stigma.  Choosing replacement words for the stigmatizing language in your everyday vocabulary (For the words “crazy” and “insane,” “wild” and “ridiculous” are effective alternatives) is a small but powerful step toward reducing the stigma and promoting equality in our society.

In addition, refrain from using mental illnesses to derogatorily describe everyday inconveniences or other people.  Mental illness and the stigma surrounding it is serious, but carelessly “name-dropping” mental illness in conversation trivializes a long-stigmatized group of health conditions.  Your tidy friend is not “OCD.” The rapidly-fluctuating weather is not “so bipolar.” That slender girl across the street is probably not “anorexic.”  And that never-ending traffic likely does not truly make you want to “kill” yourself.  These phrases, as well as others like them, delegitimize legitimate aspects of mental illness with which many people struggle with daily.  Taking care in the language you select and choosing accurate, edifying and respectful alternatives to stigmatizing phrasing communicates a powerful truth — that you stand with the mental health community and are committed to reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness.

4. Know what your friends with mental illness need from you in times of crisis — and respect their preferences.

Helping a friend with mental illness in a time of difficulty or crisis can be challenging, but it is a powerful way to not only show that you care about their well-being, but also to demonstrate that you are an ally to their community. In moments of crisis, you may be unsure of what is happening or afraid of saying or doing something unhelpful, but asking your friends with mental illness what they prefer you do will allow you to better understand how to help them through the challenges of life with mental illness.

If you are unsure of how to help a friend with mental illness, wait until a calm moment to ask if there is anything you can do to help them when they are having difficulty with aspects of their mental illness.

Understand that this is a raw, vulnerable conversation for your friend struggling with mental illness, and be patient and understanding if they seem hesitant to discuss their mental illness. If your friend seems receptive to your support, listen to how they prefer you help in times of heightened emotion or crisis and respect their preferences by following through with their wishes in difficult moments.  Since no two people with mental illness — even with the same type of mental illness — are alike, this conversation is particularly important, as it will allow you to individualize your responses to your each of your friends struggling with mental illness so that they will all feel safe and supported during challenging times.  Understanding how people with mental illness feel in moments of crisis and knowing how you can respond is a powerful way to not only be a supportive friend, but also a strong advocate for the mental health community as a whole.

It seems alarming that only 25 percent of people struggling with mental illness feel that others are compassionate toward those with mental illness.  But always remember that through your attitude, language and actions, you have the power to become a caring ally to the mental health community, to change perceptions of those living with mental illness and to work toward a more compassionate future.

Unsplash photo via James Baldwin

Originally published: October 27, 2017
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