When it comes to mental illness, ‘just reach out’ often isn’t enough.

Aimee Pearcy
Jul 25, 2018 · Unlisted

I wrote this post over a month ago, but it’s been sitting in my drafts for a while. Today I decided to bite the bullet and post it.

In 2015 there were 6,639 reported suicides in the UK and Republic of Ireland alone — that’s an average of just over 18 suicides every day.

Following mental health awareness week back in May, and what seems to be a flurry of recent celebrity suicides, including Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and Avicii, social media is flooded with well-meaning messages of people telling their friends and acquaintances to simply ‘reach out’ to them if they’re feeling suicidal.

This is a lovely gesture, and posting about mental illness is a solid step towards raising awareness and reducing stigma.

But the reality is that, as we’re seeing, a lot of the time it’s just…not enough.

It’s clear that these people are well-meaning, and that they genuinely do want to help. And writing Facebook statuses and posting the number for the Samaritans is better than doing nothing at all.

After all, when you’re lost in the darkness, any source of light is helpful.

But most of the time it’s just not as simple as ‘reaching out’.

Finding the number for the Samaritans is as easy as a five second Google search. That’s not the problem. Actually calling the Samaritans, on the other hand, can feel almost impossible when you feel like the biggest burden on earth, your chest physically hurts from the anxiety attack you’ve been suffering through for the past hour, and your brain feels as if it’s about to shut down.

For those who are struggling, the thousands of posts written by strangers reassuring you that ‘you are loved’ feel empty. And ‘reaching out’, even to those nearest and dearest to them, can feel almost impossible.

And, no matter how well-meaning these people may be, having strangers tell you over and over again to ‘just ask for help’ can sometimes feel like a swift kick in the teeth.

What’s worse is that when mentally ill people do eventually open up, the response is often less than helpful. They’re told the topic is ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘too heavy’.

When you slip and find yourself drowning in the dark waters, and depression is gripping on your ankles and trying to drag you under, it feels as if you’re using every single ounce of your strength just to stay afloat.

Reaching out and grabbing onto someone — even if they’re literally offering to act as a floatation device and reassuring you that it’s okay, and even if you know that accepting their invitation will make you feel better — feels virtually impossible.

Sometimes, this floatation device (and it can be anything from a hug, someone to watch a crap Netflix movie with, or even a stranger to talk about the weather at the bus stop with) is all you need.

And you know if you can just grab on to it, the struggle will get a hell of a lot easier.

But even though it’s right in front of you — even if it’s literally holding out an outstretched arm and smiling at you and telling you to grab on — it feels too far out of reach.

Sometimes you’re scared you’ll grab on to the floatation device and it will change its mind and push you away. Sometimes you’re scared you’ll take the leap and you’ll drown before you reach it. But most of all, you’re scared that it doesn’t realize how heavy you are and that you’ll clutch onto it so hard that you’ll end up pulling it right under with you — and then you’ll both drown.

Sometimes you need the floatation device to be the one to grab you.

Helping someone can be difficult. Even if you see someone is struggling, sometimes it can even feel intrusive to attempt to help them — especially if you don’t know them very well.

The reality is, a lot of the time if someone you love is struggling with depression, they’re not going to reach out — not because they don’t want to, but because they physically can’t. So it’s often going to be up to you to figure out when something is off.

This can be difficult. We’re all wrapped up in our own lives. Trying to keep up with someone else is hard. I get it. Everyone gets it.

But you have no idea how much of an impact a small, simple act of kindness can have on someone.

Everyone deals with their struggles differently. And the best way to help someone depends on the person in question, and how well you know them. But here are some things you can do to help someone who might not be able to ‘reach out’.

Check in on them occasionally.
It doesn’t have to be much. Maybe a text every now and again. You’d be surprised how much a single text can brighten someone’s day.

Notice one of your friends has been withdrawing? Maybe there’s a reason.

Even if you don’t know what to say, that’s okay. It’s not about what you say. It’s about letting them know you’re thinking about them. Often just saying something is enough.

Sometimes a distraction — a mundane conversation about the weather, or a funny inside joke — is all we need to take the sharp edges off.

Understand that sometimes they won’t always be able to reciprocate your efforts.
But realize that they appreciate them anyway.

Ask them what you should do when they’re feeling down.
In the midst of a severe bout of depression or an anxiety attack, it can be difficult for someone to express what they need.

If someone has been transparent enough to open up to you about their mental health issues, sometimes asking them a question as simple as, ‘when you’re feeling down, what is the best way to help?’ will make the job a lot easier.

Realize it is not about you.
One thing that stops so many people from reaching out to people is that they feel like they’re a burden to those around them. So it’s important to make sure they know that your worry for them is not their problem.

Likewise, if you do reach out to them and they don’t respond, don’t take it personally and assume it’s about you — because it’s not.

But it feels even more difficult not to write about it.

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.


Aimee Pearcy

Written by

Science/tech writer & computer scientist. aimee.pearcy@gmail.com

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.

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