How to be a better mental health ally
Having a mental health difficulty can be hard going and sometimes we need all of the help we can get. Mark Brown lays out eight ways you can be a good ally to people with mental health difficulties.
(This article appears in the winter 2012/13 edition of One in Four magazine under the headline ‘You’re gonna need someone on your side’)
When things get rough we need people who can support us in all senses of the world. We want people who’ll help us fight our corner; people who’ll represent us and support us and who’ll be there to give that something extra that’ll get us through the day. In short, we all need allies. We all need people who aren’t in exactly the same situation as us but who use their resources and skills to help us get where we want to go and who’ll help us fight and strive for the things we need from the world. Being an ally isn’t always easy.
Most people with mental health difficulties know that it can be frustrating, upsetting and confusing for those around them trying to offer support. We want allies who listen, help where they can and don’t think their feelings are more important than our feelings.
With that in mind, here’s a cut-out-and-keep guide for anyone wanting to be a good ally to people with mental health difficulties. (You can also use it as secret manual of tried-and-tested techniques to avoid getting on the nerves of the people with mental health difficulties in your life. It’ll work for that, too.)
Thou shalt not assume you know everything
People are people. We differ greatly from each other but also may have more or less in common. The same is true for anyone who experiences a mental health difficulty. While we may have some symptoms or challenges in common, we’re also individuals. Having a mental health difficulty it sometimes feels that you’re the last person to whom anyone listens about how it feels and what it means to actually experience a condition or set of symptoms.
The act of trying to understand what someone is going through by relating it to your own experiences can seduce you into feeling that you absolutely know what it’s like to have a certain condition. You might use your own experience of sadness to relate to a friend who lives with depression or you might try to use things that you’ve read or seen to try to get a sense of what it is like to experience psychosis or things like hallucinations. A good ally recognises that while this is a good way of gaining a better understanding, it isn’t the same as actually experiencing those things. A mental health ally will always listen when someone is trying to explain what their experience actually feels like.
People’s experiences of mental health difficulty have often been ignored, devalued or all lumped together – ‘all people with depression are the same‘ or ‘I knew a person who heard voices once and they said…’ – A good ally will always try to find out as much as they can about mental health but will always know that this doesn’t mean the same thing as actually experiencing a particular condition. A good ally will never stop trying to understand more about what it’s like to experience mental health difficulties and will always be able to say to herself and others ‘Of course, those who experience these things know far more than I do about what it’s like’.
Thou shalt not try to save us
When you know that someone is going through an awful time it’s a human response to want to help and to remove the factors that are making things awful. When we see that something unpleasant or troubling is happening to someone we really want to be able to make a difference for that person or group of people.
Mental health difficulty is complicated. Being a good ally involves recognising that what you want to do to help might not be what someone most needs or most wants to be done. Sometimes, our wish to help sort things out can mean that we miss listening to what the person or people we’re trying to help actually wants to happen. A good ally will recognise that the important thing is that someone gets the help or support they need. This often involves knowing that you aren’t the one who is going to ‘turn everything around’ for someone. A good ally takes satisfaction from helping needs to be met not from whether it’s them who meets them.
Similarly, it can be very heartening to have people listen to us and to agree how hard it can be to have a mental heath difficulty or how much discrimination and prejudice can get to you. A good ally will allow those kinds of story to make them angry or upset but won’t drown out the feeings that people experiencing those things feel. A good mental health ally knows that it’s different living through something to hearing what it’s like. It’s not a competition to see who can be most outraged. Remember that we also need people to help us to have hope, especially when we can see no hope for ourselves. Even the best of allies will sometimes get it wrong and be hopeful when someone thinks they should be angry or angry when someone wanted hope.
Living with something like mental health difficulty can give you lots of different contradictory feelings and opinions. The best allies are the ones who don’t give up but continue to learn to listen and to not duck out when things get complicated.
Thou shalt not assume your view is the only one
Good allies avoid taking a person with mental health difficulties aside to share the latest cure or life changing piece of advice they’ve read online or seen on television. What might be intended as helpful advice often gets lost in translation: ‘I saw something on the television that said eating vegetables is good for you‘ often ends up coming across as ‘Did you know that depression can be cured by eating lots of vegetables? Why don’t you eat lots of vegetables right now? Why take tablets when we have asparagus?‘ Chances are, people you meet who experience mental health difficulties will have spent a long time finding, or trying to find, things that work for them.
The same goes for opinions about medication or therapies. People will have thought long and hard about how they feel about treatment. If someone has to make decisions about whether to take medication or access treatments, their feelings about this are often complicated. Many of us are pragmatic, ambivalent or resentful about the fact we take medication and access support.
It’s often only people who have never had to make those choices who have pure, forceful views about whether medication or therapies are in principle ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. A good ally passes on helpful information they’ve found out but won’t try to impress their views about medications or treatments (or new wonder cures) upon their friends, family or colleagues.
A good ally will also avoid taking every opportunity to discuss their pet theory about the ’causes’ of mental health difficulty with the people who actually experience it. They will be aware that what they find interesting to discuss about mental health might not be the same thing that people who experience it think is interesting. Understanding more about mental health is a tool to help support those in your life who experience it, not a specialist knowledge round on a quiz show.
Thou shalt accept change
One of the things that people find frustrating about people with mental heath difficulties is that we’re sometimes changeable; our conditions or symptoms don’t always affect us the same way each day. We have good days and we have bad days. We might have had no trouble at all doing something last week that is causing intense problems today. This doesn’t mean we didn’t need support last week, or that we’re lying about whether we can do things today.
A good ally will recognise that mental health difficulties are often fluctuating conditions and accept that. A good ally will recognise that having a mental health difficulty is always about the tension between pushing yourself to do more and realising when you need to get help or change plans.
Allies of people with mental health difficulties try to do what they can to help, support or advocate for people with mental health difficulties getting the advice, support, treatment or fellow feeling when they need it.
Thou shalt not be awkward
One of the awful things about experiencing mental health difficulty is that you aren’t always able to be the person you’d like to be. Things that alter your mood, your thinking, your perceptions or your behaviour can really throw a spanner in the works of your relationships and meeting your responsibilities. After a period of being unwell we can feel worried of being judged, ashamed or freaked out. We know we weren’t quite ourselves, so we don’t need to feel like other people are just waiting to tell us how weird we were. A good ally knows that no matter how awkward it may feel to speak to someone you know after they’ve been unwell, it’s probably even more awkward for them. A good ally helps people to pick up where they left off. Sometimes we are ill. If mental health difficulties didn’t involved periods where we were at less than our best they wouldn’t be difficulties.
Thou shalt not blame us
A good ally understands that having a mental health difficulty can make life complicated and that what is supposed to help or make things easier doesn’t always do so. People with mental health difficulties are used to trying lots of things that might or might not work to help sort things out or make things easier. A good ally will avoid blaming us when things that are meant to help don’t quite do so. If something doesn’t work for us, it doesn’t work for us. The last thing we need is to feel guilty that it doesn’t work. A good ally shouldn’t ever see ‘getting stuff sorted’ as a straight path from ‘unwell’ to ‘well’. Similarly, people with mental health difficulties have ups and downs: a good ally accepts this as fact.
Thou shalt be helpful
One of the most important things an ally can do is use their skills, abilities, relationships, position and knowledge to support people with mental health difficulties. A good mental health ally will recognise where it is that they can help most.
A journalist might be able to find ways to get more stories about mental health into the media or to get more voices of peope with mental health difficulties into news stories. Someone who works for a housing association might be able to start discussions about how the organisation might provide a better service to tenants that experience mental heath difficulties. A member of a faith organisation might be able to make sure that members have access to someone trained in offering mental health support. Any of us can point out to people we know that using words like ‘loony’ or ‘psycho’ doesn’t help people with mental heath difficulties to find equality or justice. A good ally will always try to make sure that people with mental health difficulties are heard and included. There may be times when an ally has the opportunity to speak up for people with mental health difficulties. When these opportunities occur a good ally will try to raise issues based on what they know of the experience of people with mental health difficulties and will suggest ways in which more of those views might be brought into whatever is being discussed.
There’s a final commandment which you’re probably already doing if you’ve read this far. It’s probably the most important way that you can be a good ally to people with mental health difficulties:
Thou shalt care.