A friend’s clumsy question about my mental health taught me an important lesson
It made me feel like I couldn't talk to them about it again because it was so clear they didn't understand mental illness at all.
‘I can’t live like this.’
Those were the words I said to my mum a few months ago during a severe panic attack.
She sat with me as I rode it out but afterwards, when it was over, she made me a cup of tea and asked: ‘What did you mean by that, Molly? Are you thinking about hurting yourself?’
I wasn’t, but I am glad she asked the question, even if it was hard to do.
And I want everyone to be able to have those difficult conversations, even if we don’t want to.
We are arguably more knowledgeable about mental illness than ever before.
Most of us, at the very least, know someone who is affected and want to help.
But often, the thing that holds us back is a fear of making things worse. Of saying the wrong thing.
We don’t know what to say. Specifically, we don’t know what to ask.
I’ve always noticed how people have a tendency to tiptoe around the use of certain language.
They act as if words like depression and suicide are magical incantations that will cause the person they’re talking with to develop feelings they didn’t already have – like when you tell someone not to think about a green polar bear and then that’s all they can picture.
But as someone who has struggled with mental health, I want to say: please don’t ask me if I’m feeling blue. Ask me if I’m depressed.
There’s nothing wrong with using direct language. In fact, it can be enormously helpful.
Just like the conversation I had with my mum.
At the time, I was thinking that the panic attack was never going to end.
That I would spend the rest of my life gasping for air, unable to feel anything but the terror that was gripping me.
Clarifying what I was feeling, for both mine and my mum’s sake, enabled us to decide what our next steps needed to be.
It’s OK to ask someone if they’re suffering from depression if you know the signs, or to check whether they need you to take them to their GP or the nearest hospital. Sometimes, it’s OK to just ask if they need help.
Acting like this isn’t a normal thing to do contributes to the deep stigma that exists around mental health.
As someone who has struggled for most of their life, I am of the belief that saying nothing is generally worse than saying something and getting it a little bit wrong.
Though please note, I’m not talking about saying something absolutely abhorrent like ‘just get over it’, in which case, yes, please do shut up.
Since I started opening up about my mental health journey, I’ve had numerous friends say the same thing: ‘I knew something was wrong, I just didn’t know how to approach it with you.’
To be clear, I don’t blame them at all, but I do often wonder: would I have sought help sooner if they had spoken to me about what they were seeing? If they had told me they’d noticed changes in my behaviour that they were concerned about? At the time, I didn’t know I was unwell. I had convinced myself I was fine.
When it comes to suicide in particular, asking someone if they are thinking of taking their own life might be hard, and you might struggle with how to phrase it, but you might just make all the difference. (If you think somebody is in immediate danger, you should always call 999.)
If you're a young person, or concerned about a young person, you can also contact PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide UK. Their HOPELINK digital support platform is open 24/7, or you can call 0800 068 4141, text 07860039967 or email: [email protected] between the hours of 9am and midnight.
These questions are important because they can spark honest dialogue.
That said, mental illnesses are nuanced and complicated and asking reductive questions like, ‘What caused your mental illness?’ contributes to the idea that there is a singular cause, and by extension, solution.
This is also why asking questions centred around some form of unsolicited advice is unhelpful.
This is often well-meaning; it’s natural to want to ‘fix’ someone’s pain. But offering so-called ‘solutions’ is rarely beneficial for anyone.
I once had someone very close to me ask: ‘Have you tried just thinking more positively?’
The word ‘just’ in particular felt like a stab to the heart. It minimised what I was going through. It made me feel like I was overreacting, being dramatic for struggling so deeply. It made me feel like I couldn’t talk to them about it again because it was so clear they didn’t understand mental illness at all.
For one thing, I have. Whatever you’re thinking of suggesting, I’ve tried. For another, it assumes there is a silver bullet for anxiety that I just haven’t found yet.
The day I told my mum I couldn’t live like this wasn’t my last panic attack. But thankfully, because of the journey I was already far into, they’re now fewer and further between, though no less scary.
I still have days where it’s hard to get out of bed. But now I have tools that help. I take my medication. I journal. I take cold showers and I meditate. I go to therapy.
No one is as committed to my mental health as I am.
Before you ask someone else a question, ask yourself one: am I doing this for them or for me?
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Am I asking this question because I need to know if they are safe and if they aren’t I need to know how to get them to safety?
Or am I doing it because I want to make myself feel better by being ‘helpful’ and offering them a ‘quick fix’?
When you’ve done that, still talk to them.
You’re going to mess up. You have probably already messed up. And you’re not going to get it right every time.
But please don’t leave the people you love to face mental illness alone because you’re too afraid of saying the wrong thing.
The important thing is being willing to learn where you’re going wrong so you can do better.
None of us are perfect. Most of us are not mental health experts.
But we can be experts in the people we love.
And if we use that expertise, everyone will benefit.
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