Last Updated: Jun 1, 2016
If you don’t struggle with mental illness, you probably know someone who does. This is how to you can be a good friend and ally to that person.
When we see people in passing and ask them how they are, we tend to take their response—“I’m good” or “I’m fine”—at face value. In reality, that person may not be fine. They might be struggling to just get through the day.
According to Active Minds, a student-driven nonprofit that seeks to eliminate the stigma around mental illness, 26% of Americans aged 18 or older have a diagnosable mental illness, and people aged 18–24 tend to seek help the least.
Mental illness can dramatically impact a student’s academic career and prevent them from living the quality of life they deserve. Although I have not experienced any mental illness personally, I have witnessed it first-hand and lived with family and friends who have to deal daily with mental health conditions that are not their fault. My hope is to share my experience and to inspire others who may not personally face mental health issues to be an ally to those who do.
There is a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness, and many myths have been ingrained within our society. Some people believe that mental illness is a choice, that it is the person’s fault, that it is a reflection of one’s personal characteristics or strength, or that it does not exist at all because it is not visible like physical illness. These lies are so pervasive that many individuals who suffer from mental illness themselves may believe them as well. In order to get rid of these myths, we must all educate ourselves and create awareness. We cannot expect the people who grapple with mental health to always teach us about what they are experiencing. By educating yourself, you are developing empathy, learning to recognize signs of when your loved ones may not be okay, and gaining the tools to speak the truth about what mental illness truly is.
Education about mental illness is also long-term process; it’s not something you can pick up in an afternoon. It is important to remember that everyone is different and that it is okay to not always know how to help your loved one who is struggling with mental health. The important thing is to constantly stay in communication about how you can be a better ally to them and assist them in their journey to recovery. Little things like just listening when they need to talk, keeping them accountable with their recovery plan, or bringing them food can go a long way. It is okay to ask how you can be most helpful and it is okay to not be able to love them perfectly; hopefully that person will extend grace and understand that you are struggling with them too. At times there may be tension and it may seem unfair, but a true ally will love the person when they are at a low point as well as when they are at their best.
It is also important to remember that you are not responsible for anyone’s mental health except your own. Although it can be painful to be a mental health ally, it does no good to blame yourself for not doing enough or being able to change them. Only that person can take steps to change their own life.
If you and your loved one who struggles with mental illness are religious/spiritual, it is also important to not over-spiritualize their experience. As a person who has grown up in a Christian background, I know many people think that mental illness will go away if the person just prays more or becomes more religious. Although spiritual words of encouragement may be helpful and praying for that person may be welcomed, at the end of the day, mental illness is a medical issue that often has nothing to do with one’s spirituality. Instead, continue to be the light and positive force that someone who is stuggling may not be able to feel when they are down.
Being a mental health ally can be exhausting and emotionally draining, but it is something desperately needed in this world. My hope is that someday more people will be able to empathize and be an advocate for people with mental health issues, and that we will all learn to celebrate how powerful our minds can be.
To learn more about becoming a mental health ally, check out these helpful resources: