23 September 2017

Guest post: Kate Davis on How to be a Mental Health Ally

***As many Saturdays as possible, you'll see posts from people regarding their own experiences with their mental health. Use #BreaktheStigma on Twitter to share yours!***

Ten Tips to be a Great Mental Health Ally

As many as one in four Americans live with mental health issues. Some are short term issues, and some are chronic issues, lasting for years or for a lifetime. Knowing how to help a loved one who is struggling can save lives. While this list is just a beginning, here’s ten tips to be the best mental health ally you can be.
Mental Health Is Physical Health: The first step  is knowing mental health IS physical health. Mental health affects everything from energy levels to what sort of foods we can eat - and it’s every bit as real and impactful as any physical health issue. A mental health issue is every bit as serious as a physical health issue. Mental health has a measurable effect on the brain and body and is no different than diabetes, asthma, arthritis, or Crohn’s Disease.
Treatments Vary: Treating a mental health issue varies, depending on the type of issue, duration, severity, and the underlying cause. Talk therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, and medication are the most common. Medication supplements the brain chemistry of a person with a mental health issue, so it more closely resembles what is present in a neurotypical (non mentally ill) person. Some people will only need medication short term (a year or so) and some will require it long term. Some mental health issues have more extensive treatments, like electroconvulsive therapy (a controlled seizure to correct brain chemistry). Everyone’s treatment will be different.
Everyone Is Different:  While this one seems obvious, it’s important to remember each person with a mental health issue is different. Their symptoms, ability, and which treatments work best for them will be different. Some people thrive in talk therapy, and others don’t. Some people benefit from medication, and others have too many side effects or cannot take medication. Every person’s treatment will be unique to them. Support them in finding what works for them.
Ask How You Can Best Help Them: Since everyone’s needs are different, it’s important to ask them how you can best support them. Ask what they need, ask how they feel supported, and let them know you will help them. Everyone is different, and it’s important to ask what they need, and then meet their needs as best you can.
Listen to What They Have to Say: One of the hardest parts of mental illness is how lonely it can feel. Being there for them and listening to how they feel, what treatments are working or not working for them, and even just day-to-day small talk helps combat the isolation which can wreak havoc on people with mental health issues. Depression, Anxiety, and PTSD can lead to long stretches of time in which someone is isolated, and having a friendly, supportive friend there can remind them that they are connected to something bigger than themselves.
Make Sure They Know They’re Not Alone: If they are talking about something they feel, and you can relate, find a time to tell them. The timing on this one is key - don’t interrupt, and don’t make the conversation about you, but make sure they know what they think and feel is completely normal. Remember - mental health issues ARE normal - it’s why we have names, research, and treatments available for all of them. Everyone struggles sometimes, and it’s not a sign of weakness.
Encourage Self-Care: Self-care is much more about basic routine and eating/showering schedules than pampering. Resting, talking, following a treatment plan, and meal planning can all be considered self-care. Remind them it’s ok to take breaks. This one is really important!
Make Sure They Have a List of Contacts: This one seems basic, but it’s really important. Make sure they have their doctors, friends, and family in their phone’s contact list. Remembering phone numbers when you’re upset is almost impossible. Knowing exactly how to contact someone in a crisis saves lives.

Help Them Find Resources: It can be daunting to find a therapist or new doctor, to find a therapy group, or inpatient care. If you can help them by looking up doctors and ratings, or simply being there to support them while they do so, it can make a world of difference.
Keep in Touch: This is the easiest and most effective way to help someone with a mental health issue - don’t lose contact with them. If you haven’t heard from them in a week (or however long would be unusual to not hear from them), reach out and say hi, ask how they’re doing. Talk with them, and listen. It’s very, very easy for someone to become isolated, and with all the wonders of modern technology, it’s very easy to reach out and remind them you’re still here, still love them, and are still their ally.

Do you have more tips? Please share in the comments!

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