Are you okay?

One of the cruellest things about mental illness is how worthless it can make you feel. And when you feel that way, it’s very difficult to ask for help – as I wrote about earlier this week. But sometimes, it’s just as hard to offer help – and that’s a serious problem.

Now, I don’t think this comes from a place of cruelty. In my experience, people are mostly kind; we want to care for others where we can. So why do we find it so difficult to offer help to people we think might be struggling with their mental health? Why is it so achingly hard to utter the words: are you okay?

It’s not because we’re selfish – more because we’re awkward, and we don’t want to offend or intrude. All of which is understandable. But it’s also how people end up slipping through the net. Because they’re too afraid to ask for help, and we’re too scared to offer it.

Of course, we can’t blame this entirely on our own bumbling Britishness – it’s also structural. Western society isn’t really geared towards supporting emotionally vulnerable people, given how many of us live apart from our extended families. Likewise, large numbers of people live alone or with housemates found online, and we tend to spend most of our lives with our colleagues, who may or may not know us well.

This means we typically no longer have somebody to keep a close eye on us. Most people don’t even see the same GP from visit to visit, so spotting poor mental health isn’t something we can leave up to medical professionals. We have to take this mantle up ourselves – especially in the case of demographics we know particularly struggle to ask for help, like men.

I don’t tend to write a lot specifically about men’s mental health, because (being a woman, and all that) I don’t feel qualified to speak about it. There are enough voices who can eloquently tell those stories. But I do worry about it – all the time, in fact – especially when I have exchanges like this with my boyfriend:

‘How would you ask for help?’

‘What sort of help?’

‘Mental health help.’

‘… I’d ask you.’

‘Ha. No, but seriously. In general.’

‘Erm… I would probably wait until somebody commented on it. Until somebody asked if I was okay. And then say, maybe, not really…’

That breaks my heart. And I’m sure he’s far from the only person who feels like that. But while I can’t undo years of structurally reinforced gendered nonsense, I can push myself to look out for the men close to me. And so can everyone who is well enough to take on the task.

Ask explicit questions of your partners, your male friends, your brothers. Even your fathers. Dads definitely aren’t exempt: my first real experience of ‘seeing’ depression close up was my own father. (PS., I’m definitely NOT saying it’s a woman’s work to do this sort of emotional labour; it’s everybody’s responsibility).

This isn’t the only solution, of course. A colleague recently shared this excellent development from men’s shaving brand, Harry’s, who have commissioned a listening bot called ‘HARR-E’, following research which showed men are 300% more likely to open up to AI than another human. If this can go on to help more men open up, that’s wonderful – and hopefully the same tech can be rolled out to support a wider range of people.

But in a way, the need for such tech reinforces my point: if 50% of the population are more likely to open up to AI than each other, we need to work harder to make people feel comfortable talking about their feelings. Because, as wonderful as AI is, it can’t (yet) rub your back and hold you while you weep. It can’t hold your hand in the GP’s surgery, and it can’t sit with you over a cup of tea while you research finding a counsellor.

So (in honour of World Mental Health Day) if you see someone struggling – or anybody struggling, for that matter: ask. When you ask, they may not want to share. Likewise, when you ask somebody if you can help them, they won’t always be ready or able to accept it. Sometimes, there’s a fine line to draw, where we have to make judgments about whether or not people are well enough to be left alone, if they ask to be. But we have to get better at doing this – not least because, in all likelihood, one day we’ll need it too.

Ways of Offering Help

Not a trained counsellor, obviously, but here are the things I personally think can be helpful:

  • The obvious one: ask, ‘are you okay?’ Then listen, listen, listen. You may receive no answer – but at least you’ve opened the conversation.
  • Many people will also just say ‘yes, fine’, regardless of how they actually feel. If it’s someone you’re close with, sometimes you need to push further. ‘You seem like you’re struggling at the moment – do you want to talk about anything?’ is a good way of phrasing the question that lets people know you do sincerely want to listen.
  • Ask to spend time with people who are struggling. Feel like they’ve withdrawn from you? They may well feel like they’re a burden and poor company, which can lead to self-isolation.
  • Offer to go with someone if they need to see a Doctor or counselling if you can spare the time – going alone can be bloody scary. Having a panic attack on your way to speak to somebody about having panic attacks, and all that.
  • Reassure them that their feelings are valid and they deserve help. Often, people battling with mental illness struggle to remember this.
  • It may be that you’re clued up on what your friend is going through. If not, do some research. Not least because mental health is a valuable thing to know about in life and general. And it may even be the case that your friend hasn’t looked into any resources for getting better, so this could help you to help them.
  • Ask if you can help with practical tasks and life admin. AKA, the stuff that often falls horribly by the wayside when people are ill.
  • Be patient. Be kind. Remember that what you are doing is worth so much more than feeling awkward.

Anybody else got any good suggestions for offering help to people struggling? Let me know in the comments – and in the meantime, have a peaceful week.

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In defence of crying

My name’s Nic, and I’m a crier.

Here’s a list of things I’ve cried at in the last week: the Lloyds advert with the horses on the beach; Bridget Jones’ Baby; an article in the Telegraph; Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion singing The Prayer; a hospital appointment; the Lloyds advert again; and generally feeling a bit tired.

I am capable of crying an ocean of tears, and feeling utterly calm five minutes later.

Am I going through a bad mental health patch? Nope: this year has been the best I’ve felt in my adult life. I’m just one of those people who cries a lot. I cry when I’m happy. I cry when I’m sad. I frequently shed a tear when my pregnant friend sends me a baby bump update. I cry with laughter maybe once a day. I cry when I miss my Dad, or when I’m panicking, or (most annoyingly) when I’m really fucking angry and trying to have a pop at somebody. This usually completely undermines my point, but hey.

Naturally, to save other people from feeling awkward, I try to do this crying in private. As a society, we don’t like tears. I don’t blame people for this – tears aren’t easy to deal with – but I do get quite frustrated when people see it as a sign of weakness. Or worse, attention seeking.

Honestly, the most annoying accusation levelled against people who cry a lot is that they’re doing it for sympathy, or to get out of trouble. Every single time I have ever cried when I’ve been in trouble, it has got me into more trouble. It is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. They are not crocodile tears. I would really rather not do it. Believe me: I value the ability to get my point across in a terse conversation, and crying does not help you do that.

All in all, it’s not easy, this lip-wobbling tendency of mine. It’s always been a thing about myself that I would love to change. Again, as my fellow criers will know, some people are really offended by it. But in the last few years, I’ve slowly started to care less.

It probably started when my Dad was dying. And by ‘it’, I mean ‘no longer giving a fuck about my teary ways’. During that time, I lost the ability to care about crying in public. If anything, I did it more – because I didn’t want to cry in front of him, or my pals, given we were all revising for our final year exams at the time.

So I did a lot of sobbing in various places, primarily the Nottingham-Birmingham train line. Thankfully, being British, almost everyone left me alone to get on with it, barring the occasional ill-advised ‘cheer up love, it’ll be better in the morning!’ comment. (Terminal cancer: very rarely better in the morning, as it goes).

Through this, I learnt to realise that my tears weren’t the end of the world. Often, they were the only thing that allowed me to feel a bit better. Little wonder: crying releases stress hormones and reduces tension – a 2008 study found crying improved the mood of 90% of subjects.

Now, I’m often grateful for a little cry, and I refuse to see it as a weakness. Like still waters after a storm, a big bluster of emotion helps me give way to calm. Crying means I’m able to go from being in a remarkably shit mood to feeling absolutely dandy in under 20 minutes. A quick sob and I can be back about my day, bright-eyed and as cheerful and a lark.

Honestly, it’s a shame more people can’t take advantage of the magic of tears. Men especially. It genuinely makes me very sad that men find it so hard to let themselves cry. Nearly every boyfriend I’ve ever had has screwed up his face and turned away, rather than let me see their tears.

As someone who has literally cried to an EE sales assistant, I say: tears are fine! Embarrassment is literally the worst thing that can result! Men, believe me, you are allowed to cry (and, if you’re friends with me, positively encouraged to). It can make you feel so, so much better. And unlike other things that make me feel better, like exercise, I can do crying in bed. Ideal.

So yep – the older I get, the less embarrassed I am about being a crier. And I think it’s time that we stopped stigmatising tears so much. Because yes, I probably am an overly emotional person – but I’m also compassionate and empathetic and fiercely loving. These things go hand in hand, I can’t help but feel.

Best of all? I will never, never be made to feel awkward by somebody else’s tears. So if you need a shoulder to cry on, come on over. Just make sure I don’t catch sight of that bloody Lloyds Bank advert, or I’ll be joining you.

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