How to (Truly) Support a Mentally Unwell Person
I began writing this article while watching the world’s reaction to Megan Markle’s story of her mental health struggle. I finished it while inundated with a flurry of shared articles and studies on burnout and depression weeks later. Markle’s experience has hit close to home, and so I would like to come forward with my own story in the hopes that it will shed light on the reality of mental health and mental illness.
Throughout my entire adolescence, I unknowingly struggled with depression. In my 20’s, I experienced debilitating anxiety and was unable to eat or work for 6 months —my scale eventually read 89 pounds. In November 2019, I nearly took my own life. Twice.
First, I must apologize to my close friends and family reading this, as this is the first they are hearing of my state of (un)wellness at that time. Second, those who know me well would call me strong, ambitious and independent, very capable of traveling the world alone, starting a company, and otherwise able to adjust to life’s challenges. I’m highly educated in the fields of psychology, counseling, human development and behavior science. While I knew exactly what was happening to me, and while I was fearful of what I would do if left alone, I still could not find my way to formal help. I was paralyzed and confused and scared that I somehow got to that place.
When I was in a state of mental health, suicide seemed so illogical to me. So final. So unimaginable. But when my mental state changed, so did my perspective. Not being alive anymore, shockingly, made complete and total sense to me. I sat and thought, “But — you love life. Won’t you miss life?”. And for the first time, nothing came to mind. I could not think of anything that would dissuade me from that option, save for my pups (who rescued who is still up for debate). And that scared me more than anything because, intellectually, I knew the sun would find me again. I knew the clouds would part and I would fall back in love with life. But I did not feel it, I could not see it. And that is a very real, very jarring experience.
We cannot expect a mentally unwell person to behave or perform the same as a mentally well person. We must be aware of where people are on the spectrum of wellbeing before making judgements, placing expectations or supporting them.
A mentally capable person in a state of wellbeing is very different from that same person in a state of being unwell. When we experience mental illness we can feel like a completely different person, wondering what happened to the vivacious and happy individual that used to exist. This further deteriorates our wellbeing, pushing us to perpetuate the myth that we should be able to independently rise up and snap ourselves out of these times. We tell ourselves that, if we put in enough effort, buy this thing, take this pill, or practice enough self-care facials, we will prevail. Sometimes this is the case, most times it is not.
I have to assume the numerous posts asking why Markle did not get her own help and the accusations of attention-seeking to be made out of ignorance. Plain logic and possessing the energy to help oneself has nothing on mental illness.
I’ve always been a person who sees the extraordinary in the ordinary. I live with hope, even in the face of adversity. I find absolute joy in simple things, like the way the sun hits a leaf, and amusement in the way life ebbs and flows in peaks and valleys. As a teenager and young adult, my parents’ friends would say, “You don’t have to worry about her!” But to extrapolate our traditional views of strength onto a suffering person, as though they were mentally well, is a grave and inhumane mistake. I cannot count the number of times I was told, in the midst of this challenging time, “You’re strong, you’ll find your way through this.”
We cannot expect the same behavior (or work performance, hint hint) from a person who feels despondent, depressed, or hopeless at a severe level. There are many things I did when I was under those conditions, like getting irrationally upset at very small things (embarrassing), forgetting meetings (very unlike me) and taking a nap on my kitchen floor (yes I did) that I would never have done in a state of wellbeing.
While Markle’s resources positioned her to get help more easily, her environment did not. It does not matter how much money or fame one has. Our neurotransmitters don’t give a f*ck about our bank accounts or status in life. We are all human. We all feel. We all suffer. That is what connects us.
Even when there are no answers — especially when there are no answers, like what our post pandemic futures hold— we would do well to finally learn to take a seat next to our people, at the office, at home and in life, and simply be there. This means approaching others within your company or creating time in the day to sit next to your fellow humans, and having the empathy and compassion to listen to fears and worries and to share your own. Only from that place of first feeling the feels can true progress be born; only then can we feel heard and loved enough in order to rise up and move forward. The bonus? It connects us more than forced fun outings or happy hours ever will. It is connection during a time of vulnerability, and that’s magic.
What does this look like for leaders?
Leaders need not give over-simplified, over-positive answers or show a false sense of confidence or optimism. This can work against them, as people tend to hear “why can’t you just be positive?” or “I choose my comfort over your pain”. Allowing people to air their feelings and to be heard in a safe space is an exceptional first step to helping them on their way back to wellness. This works to benefit both parties, as leaders often feel like they need to have all the answers —a large contributor to their own stress. If you’re a leader, you can release yourself from this responsibility. You can instead choose to listen instead of fix.
We in the West have been conditioned to seek out the quickest, easiest solution. We’ve lost the ability to pause. To listen. To really listen, and to resist our impulse to fix. Much of the time, those who are unwell don’t lack the know-how to ameliorate their uncomfortable, maybe painful, state. They lack a feeling of connection, of being valued and cared for, and of being supported. They feel alone, even when they are famous. They feel cloudy and confused, even though they are bright, intelligent individuals. They feel hopeless, even with all the resources they could ever need.
3 Steps to Supporting a Mentally Unwell Individual
- Be curious — Ask them thoughtful questions about how they are feeling, like “How has _____ affected you? What is the area you’re feeling the most helpless right now? What might you need?” If you don’t truly care or have the time to listen, it’s ok, you are simply not in a place to start these steps. But sit with yourself and find some empathy before you do. Everyone is equipped with a bullshit alarm, so don’t fake it.
- Refrain from fixing — Be present, and just listen. Resist the impulse to be overly positive or provide solutions they’ve probably already thought of. When I feel the urge to start spewing “Have you tried…?” I take a few deep breaths and refocus on what the individual is saying. There have been plenty of times I caught important feelings or details I would have missed if I wasn’t truly available and present.
- Repeat — These are relationship-strengthening behaviors that require repetition to feel truly authentic and to be optimally effective. By repeating this process, whether through structured time or informal discussions, people see true compassion and care, not a corporate Band-Aid.