Why is it so uncomfortable to talk about mental health?
Unfortunately, our current misconceptions contribute to our discomfort with talking openly about mental health. Mental health is often portrayed as being problematic, as something that needs fixing. We sometimes assume mental health only affects a select group of people suffering from specific conditions, such as depression or eating disorders. If you are concerned about mental health, you must be weak, needy or, worst of all, crazy. In terms of improving mental health, we think of last resort treatment — you get help when you are at the lowest of lows.
We must stop thinking about mental health this way.
Having good mental health should not be a low priority, and seeking help should never be a last resort. Rather, maintaining good mental health is like staying physically healthy: It requires daily maintenance and is an integral part of our overall well-being. Mental health affects all of us because we all have minds. We all have fears, doubts, aspirations, loved ones and people who love us. We all become anxious and stressed and feel pain.
But mental health isn’t always about problems. It is also about things we can do to help each other feel better about our lives and ourselves. One key component of establishing good mental health involves willingness to be both supported and supportive. We must have the courage to text a friend and say, “Hey, I’m having a rough day. Can we talk?” when we need someone to listen and validate our concerns. We also must be willing to put aside our massive to-do list and drop everything when someone needs us.
In asking for help, you are neither needy nor weak. You are not a burden, and you are certainly not crazy. You are a human being who is not perfect and on whom other people rely, care about, and want to be happy. It takes courage to open up to another person, and you are brave for taking the first step to feeling better.
In helping someone, you are not expected to fix everything. As students at the College of William and Mary, we often feel pressure to save the world. But some problems simply can’t be solved, and that can be frustrating and heartbreaking. Please know you are not helpless; you can still provide invaluable support without solving the problem. You can vastly improve a situation without making the problem disappear.
Sometimes, the biggest help you can provide is letting a friend talk, validating his or her right to feel upset or hurt, and making sure he or she feels loved and safe. I often try to find a silver lining in a friend’s troubles too quickly, but in doing so, I can dismiss what that friend is going through by unintentionally belittling her struggles. It is okay to put finding a solution on hold and to acknowledge that the situation is rough. The silence of active listening is often a more powerful affirmation that someone is valuable and loved than anything that can be spoken.
One of my dear friends and personal role models taught me a wonderful approach for helping someone. When friends come to her, she listens compassionately and uninterruptedly as they talk, cry and release the emotions they have been bottling up. She then thanks them for being brave enough to open up to her — oftentimes it is not easy. After she has listened, my friend asks, “What can I do to help you now?”
We shouldn’t underestimate the value of kind actions in such a situation. Sometimes, it is the seemingly little things that can make the biggest impact. Offering to take a walk, have a Netflix marathon, bake cookies, or go stargazing in Colonial Williamsburg can give our friends and ourselves a chance to relax, laugh and forget about our troubles for awhile. It can remind us that life can be beautiful.
Everyone means the world to someone else — so you may just wind up saving the world after all.
Starting today, Andrea Aron-Schiavone will be writing a regular column about mental health. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.