After the deaths of two prominent celebrities by suicide, people are eager to find a way to help their friends who may be dealing with suicidal thoughts and all kinds of mental health issues. But telling people to "get help" on its own isn't that helpful. And, it turns out, there's so much more you can do that will have a bigger impact.
An Instagram post from Project LETS breaks down how you can help someone with a mental illness and forces people to get real about areas where they may be slacking. The post specifically requests that instead of telling people to “get help” that you ask yourself some eye-opening questions about the ways you've offered help to someone dealing with mental health issues:
Have I ever distanced myself from someone after learning they overdosed? Or have a mental illness? Or have experience with trauma, abuse, domestic or sexual violence, disability, etc.?
Have I ever sent a ‘Get Well Soon' card or balloons to someone hospitalized for a manic or psychotic episode?
Have I ever brought dinner to someone who is home recovering from a mental health episode/psychiatric crisis?
Have I ever asked someone with OCD, "How have you been feeling lately?"
Have I ever offered to drive someone with a mental illness to a medical appointment? Their therapy appointment? A psychiatry appointment?
Have I ever asked someone with bipolar disorder, "Is there anything I can do to help manage things?"
Am I ready for my anxious friend to cancel plans without explanation?
Am I ready for my depressed friend to not say anything in a social situation?
Am I ready to deal with more situations than just depression and anxiety? Do I understand what psychosis looks like? Or a flashback?
Am I ready for my friend to behave in a way that I may not understand or think is acceptable?
Am I ready to sit and listen to my friend's experience, without trying to fix or solve it, and without offering advice?
Project LETS was created after founder Stefanie Lyn Kaufman’s friend died by suicide, Kaufman tells SELF.
Kaufman was in high school at the time and found that, while there were many students who were grieving the loss, her school district didn’t seem to want to address it, she says. “It kind of shook the entire community,” Kaufman says. “Essentially, any kind of conversation about it seemed to be glamorizing suicide and could potentially trigger other students, so it was just completely swept under the rug.”
Kaufman realized that the education system didn’t seem to know how to address suicide, so she started advocating for policy change on the state level, specifically for 7th- to 12-grade educators to be trained in basic mental health education and suicide-prevention training. “I worked with health teachers to revamp their curriculum to ensure they were providing inclusive and culturally responsive education for mental health and mental illness and started doing workshops with Girl Scouts troops and YMCAs—basically anyone who would listen to me,” she says. Things grew from there.
One thing we need to do better is to actually listen to people with mental illnesses and pay attention to their specific needs, Kaufman says.
As her organization’s Instagram post points out, telling people just to “get help” doesn’t actually help. “This ties into the idea that it’s all about willpower and individual choice—that all someone needs to do is go to therapy or get on medication and everything will be fine,” she explains.
For some, that may indeed be a helpful reminder. But, considering all the barriers to accessing quality mental health care (e.g. stigma, cost, finding a therapist who understands your specific circumstances), the idea that telling someone to just "reach out" as if it will solve everything is a serious oversimplification of the process.
So, if you want to tell your friend to “get help,” make sure you also are prepared to take things a step further than that simple statement, Simon Rego, Psy.D., chief psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine, tells SELF. For example, take initiative in actually helping them find a doctor or make additional efforts to be there for them as a support system.
It's OK if you don't know exactly what those steps are that will help your friends with mental health issues. But if you are unsure, just ask them directly.
When people aren’t aware of what a friend or loved one needs, they may react in fear or even avoid them, Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells SELF. Others may want to help but don’t know how—and then do nothing.
Doing nothing can make things worse. “Mental health problems can be exacerbated by our society’s stigma against them,” Tamar Gur, M.D., Ph.D., a women's health expert and reproductive psychiatrist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF.
Everyone also has their own implicit bias, Dr. Gur says, and looking at your own biases is important for helping loved ones with mental health issues. “’Do I check in with my friends who I know have OCD and depression? Or do I shy away because it scares me or I think that they should just get better?’ That’s important to ask yourself,” Dr. Gur says.
Dr. Mendez recommends thinking of how you’d respond if your loved one had a physical illness—and then actually do that. Bring them takeout, sit with them and talk, and simply ask what you can do to help day to day. “Illness is illness,” Dr. Mendez says. “Draw on your empathy and compassion and just be present.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text Crisis Text Line at 741-741.