Decisions that people with mental health issues make are heavily affected by the attitudes of the people around them, which is why allies can play a huge role.

Want to be a good mental health ally Here are 5 simple ways to become oneImage for representation. Photo: Raja stills/Picxy
Health Mental health Tuesday, September 17, 2019 - 11:56

If you know a co-worker who has a broken hand or a sprained leg, and you’re a considerate person, you wouldn’t think twice before assisting them with little things like, say, lifting heavy objects. However, if you knew that this person is struggling with mental health issues like depression or bipolar disorder, and you’re not aware about mental health, you might be less keen on helping them out.

Now imagine that most people in your workplace are like that – they are either unsure of how they can help this person, or are sceptical or disbelieving about the person’s experience, or worse, think that there is something fundamentally “wrong” and “abnormal” with them.

And that is precisely how an environment is created where people with mental health issues – and there are many more than you think – are discouraged from speaking up, seeking help, and compelled into hiding their turmoil to appear “normal”.

“In mental healthcare, like any other health issue, there are challenges related to symptoms of the illness itself. But the bigger issues are social in nature,” points out Manoj Chandran, CEO of White Swan Foundation, a non-profit that offers knowledge services in the area of mental health. “The decisions that people with mental health issues make are heavily affected by the attitudes of the people around them. This is why there is a huge possible role that people can play in the potential recovery of this person too,” he adds.  

This is why it’s important for us to become allies to those struggling with mental health. “The aim is to encourage those with mental health issues to seek professional help, and to seek it as soon as possible. If people understand that they are stakeholders, they would be encouraged to contribute positively to people grappling with mental health,” Manoj says.

If you want to be a good mental health ally but aren’t sure how, here are some things you can do.

Empathise, and listen without judgment

This is perhaps the most crucial part of being a good mental health ally. Listening without judgment, without jumping to give advice is a skill an ally must practice.

Validating the experience of someone living with a mental illness is extremely important, as is not being dismissive. It isn’t just a “mood swing”, neither is it a “phase”, nor can one “snap out of it”.

Educate yourself

Educate yourself about mental health. Read up, research online, talk to people, and listen with an open mind. Learn about the historical prejudice and stigma associated with mental illness, and how difficult that makes it for patients to open up or seek help even now.

When we begin to have the right knowledge about mental health in general, a good ally becomes equipped to nudge someone in need to making the right decisions with regard to their mental health, like seeing therapy.

Being mindful of language

As you educate yourself, become mindful of the language you use when it comes to mental health, and those living with mental health issues. Calling people with mental health issues “crazy”, “emotional” or “insane” only normalises the stigma associated with mental health.

Similarly, stop throwing around words like “depression”, “bipolar” and “OCD” (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) casually for describing everyday frustrations. These are serious disorders that can be very debilitating, and not “phases” those who struggle with the disorders can just snap out of.

Know your boundaries

You can’t pour from an empty cup. As a mental health ally, you must be mindful of your mental health as well, and understand that you are different from a caregiver. For instance, if you are trying to help a friend who is struggling with substance abuse, it is prudent to set boundaries in terms of how involved you can get, how much of your resources such as time and money you can invest based on your capacity.

Championing mental health

A huge part of being a mental health ally is championing the cause for mental health, normalising conversations about it, and attempting to make the space you’re in, mental health positive. Having conversations with your co-workers, friends, family on the stigma around mental illnesses, and how seeking therapy or being on medication for mental health is normal is a good way to go about it.

In fact, White Swan Foundation has launched a campaign – October Allies – where you can take a pledge to be a mental health ally. Started in September, the campaign will run through October - October 10 marks World Mental Health Day as well.

Under the campaign, every week that its running, a challenge faced by persons with mental health issues will be presented – such as denial, myths, guilt, and coping – along with a pledge that you can take. This pledge can be shared on social media, encouraging others to learn, and do the same.

You can check out the campaign here.

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