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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