Elizabeth Seabolt-Esparza, LPC
May Is Mental Health Awareness Month- Common Mistakes to Avoid When a Loved One Is Struggling
Updated: Jun 8, 2022
May is mental health awareness month. It is a heartbreaking coincidence that singer Naomi Judd died by suicide only days ago. Her daughter, Ashley Judd, had such an honest and eloquent way of describing how her mother died by announcing “we lost our beautiful mother to the disease of mental illness.” This felt like such an understanding and compassionate way to conceptualize what really happens when someone takes their own life.
Mental health can be a curable and manageable illness, but in some cases can be terminal; just like any illness, some people are able to survive it and some people succumb to it. I love the fact that society is striving to be more supportive and educated about mental health.
We spend a great deal of time offering advice, often times unsolicited, to people who struggle with mental health issues. However, what advice can we give people who want to support a loved one who is struggling and what are common mistakes that could be avoided when trying to support a loved one? With social media in existence, more people have used it as a way to reach out for help, but responses are not always helpful or supportive. Unfortunately, many uneducated people who mean well, try to help in ways that are less than helpful.
I have certainly seen people reach out for help when they are struggling and have even seen a few posts that were tantamount to a suicide letter. The responses were often disheartening. Some people offered their number to talk. In some more severe cases people would use the Facebook option to get help for the person or call for a welfare check.
Sadly though, some people were not so helpful, offering suggestion like “suck it up,” or “it could be worse.” I frequently saw people jumping on theses comment threads to make suggestions about dietary or lifestyle changes. One person who reached out, a certified yoga instructor, was asked if she had ever considered trying yoga. On a separate occasion a person posted a status update about how they were really struggling and needed a friend to talk to. Not five minutes went by before someone was telling them to avoid sugar and take probiotics.
Most of the unhelpful suggestions come from a place of goodness. As annoying and frustrating as it may be, most of the people offering this unhelpful advice really do think they are helping. However, these comments can feel dismissive to the person who is struggling.
Many people struggling with a mental illness just need a kind word and a safe place to feel seen and heard. If you have a loved one who is struggling and you are feeling helpless, the suggestions below may help. While they are mostly suggestions of what NOT to do, it may help you to read WHY these things should be avoided to better help your loved one.
Some common mistakes to avoid:
1) Avoid unsolicited advice about diet and lifestyle. Unless they specifically ask for dietary suggestions, don’t suggest they change their diet. This advice is often given with little to no knowledge of what the person’s diet is actually like. I am a huge believer in using natural alternatives and healthy eating as a way to combat mental health symptoms, but when someone is struggling to that extent, they need to stabilize before they can even think about what they are eating. When your brain isn’t producing the chemicals that make you want to get out of bed in the morning or keep living, avoiding gluten isn’t the priority at that moment.
2) Don’t suggest they exercise. Again, I am huge believer in the mind-body connection. I believe getting exercise is key for mental health. But as I mentioned above, some people need to feel heard and have a chance to stabilize before thinking about things like exercising. Diet and exercise are often more useful as a way of maintaining mental health. Getting up and getting moving can be extremely difficult when you are struggling with depression. Unless a person is asking specifically for suggestions on exercise, this kind of comment can feel dismissive.
3) Don’t tell them it could be worse. Could it be worse? Yes. Is it helpful to remind a severely depressed person that it could be worse? No. This isn’t helpful and can make a person feel even more isolated and less inclined to reach out for help.
4) Be very cautious about bringing religion into the conversation. For some people who are religious this may be very helpful. But if you are not sure about their spirituality it is best to avoid this tactic. Reminding a suicidal person what the bible says about suicide may do more harm than good in that moment. Telling someone to “let go and let God” may feel very dismissive to someone who is atheist. However, if religion is important to the person struggling, this may be helpful. Just proceed with caution.
5) Avoid toxic positivity. Telling people to think positively isn’t that simple. As one of my friends joked about this very topic- “have you tried just feeling better?” Also avoid telling people, especially women, to smile. The last time someone bellowed “smile!” at me, I had just received news that someone I loved had died. This feels dismissive and further isolates people who are struggling.
6) Please don’t try to play doctor. If they have chosen to take medication for their mental health issues, do not lecture them about the side effects or tell them they are taking the easy way out. I spent all of my childhood and the majority of my adulthood trying to cope with depression with St. Johnswort and exercise before I finally decided to try antidepressants. It changed my life and probably saved it. Because I am a big believer in transparency about my own mental health struggles and normalizing mental health self-care, I was very open about my decision to begin taking antidepressants. I do not regret being open about my own struggles but the emails and private messages lecturing me about how the medication was just a sugar pill, in addition to unsolicited advice about changing my diet (with no knowledge of what my diet actually was) began immediately. None of this was helpful and I certainly did not feel supported.
7) Please don’t tell suicidal people they are selfish or trying to take the easy way out. This only leads to more isolation and isolation doesn’t help people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts. People who are suicidal are not selfish or weak. They are fighting and probably have been for a long time. They are probably exhausted from being so strong and resilient.
After reading this list you may be thinking there isn’t anything you could say or do to help. The good news is that what you can do is pretty simple: listen. The best thing you can do is listen, without judgment and without trying to fix the situation. You simply need to give your loved one a safe space to talk about what they are struggling with and how they are feeling.
If you are feeling anxious about not being able to solve it for them (some people have a natural need to fix things) ask them if they want someone to listen, or if they want feedback or suggestions. Obviously, you cannot be your friend’s therapist and if you feel your loved one needs more help than you can provide, help them find a therapist. There is no shame in getting professional help. In fact, it’s a brave move.
Elizabeth Seabolt-Esparza, LPC