It’s Mental Well Being Week at Ryerson, and I love that. I know personally that if someone told me they had cancer, I would be immediately supportive, offering anything I could to help, promising that we were in this as a team. I also know that the first time someone told me they were depressed, I thought, “We all have bad days.” (if you think I’m an idiot for that, I agree!)
The stigma around mental health is so all-encompassing that I found it difficult to even talk about mental health issues with my friend. The stigma surrounding it is incomparable; you wouldn’t misunderstand someone for being blind, but you might for having bipolar disorder. Fiction portrays people who suffer from mental illness as incapable of rational thought and often as criminals, even though they’re much more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrator. And even though there’s this weird myth that you’re weak, you’re dangerous, some people still don’t believe mental illness exists.
I don’t know if one person can change our entire culture. But the good thing is, you don’t need to. You just need to change your own thoughts. I talked with some different Ryerson students who’ve been diagnosed with mental illnesses for some advice on how their friends could have been more supportive. If you can be a good friend to someone who needs help, then you’re one step ahead of most of us.
Learn About It
If a friend of yours reveals they have a mental illness, they might not want to go into detail. Or who knows, they might not have that much information on it themselves. We go to Ryerson, with a 7 floor library; we live in Toronto, with over 100 branches of our public library; and we have the entire internet at our fingertips. So, spend some time researching and learning more about what it actually means to have to have therapy or take medicine and how your friend gets to their version of ‘normal.’
Listen To Them
When people come to you with problems, they aren’t always looking for answers. Sometimes, they just want you to acknowledge their strength for everything they have to deal with. Sometimes they want someone to acknowledge that life isn’t fair. Sometimes they want someone to just help them laugh about something for a few minutes. It isn’t always easy to define the struggles that come with mental illness, and they are different for every individual. Offer your support by being there. A really neat resource you could offer is Thought Spot, a live map designed by students for students in the Greater Toronto Area, “the map allows students to easily identify and access health and wellness services, and discover resources that are relevant to their experiences, situation, and location.” See the resource, Thought Spot, here: www.mythoughtspot.ca.
Keep (Some of) Your Advice To Yourself
The advice I’m offering you is broad, because
1) I don’t know who your friend is
2) I don’t know your relationship with them
But if you’re in a situation when you’re offering broad advice, odds are they’ve tried it before. Do you think that they haven’t tried shaking it off? Changing their attitude? Praying about it? I’m pretty sure that if someone had the magical cure to illness in their mind, they would use it. Do you tell your friend with diabetes to stop whining, and start producing insulin? If there’s a chemical imbalance in your brain, as with many mental illnesses, it’s the same thing.
Have An Emergency Plan
Make sure that they know that you’re available, and be prepared with the right resources to help in a situation you might not be able to handle by yourself. Sometimes, all it takes is a phone call to save someone’s life.
Take Care (Of Yourself)
The best advice we ever get in life is when we step onto a plane: “Secure your own oxygen mask before helping anyone else with theirs.” Self-care is important for everyone, so give yourself time to be your own person so that you can process situations from a clear and healthy approach. Talk with your own support network about any stress you’re feeling, and try and not put the pressure back on your friend who is already under stress.
I hope that you are able to help your friend work through this. Having a friend come out to you with a mental illness can be incredibly stressful and scary for them, and it’s a great honour that someone trusts you with something they may initially feel uncomfortable about. By being a good friend, you can help break down the stigma we have in our culture, and normalize taking care of yourself.
If you are in crisis or dealing with a crisis situation, call 9-1-1 or the Gerstein Centre Distress Line 416-929-5200
Ryerson University Health Promotion has services for you, as well: call (416)-979-5000 ext. 4295.
Ryerson Mental Well Being www.ryerson.ca/mentalhealth
Ryerson Counselling Centre www.ryerson.ca/counselling
More resources: Good2Talk www.good2talk.ca 1-866-925-5454
Thought Spot mythoughtspot.ca