According to the World Health Organisation, one-in-four of us will be affected by a mental health problem at some point in our lives. Mental illness can affect anyone, irrespective of age, education or lifestyle, and one of the biggest barriers to treatment is the stigma associated with it. For some reason, we can empathise with people suffering illnesses of the body like cancer, but back away from those with illnesses of the brain like depression. And so sufferers keep their plight to themselves, often delaying proper diagnosis and treatment, for fear of being labelled.
It's easy to withdraw from people with a mental illness. Perhaps we fear we won't know what to say or do. But here's the good news: when a friend, colleague or family member wrestles with their mental health, they don't want us to become therapists or miracle workers. What they really need from us is within our reach to give.
See the Person, Not the Illness
People who wrestle with their mental health are bigger than their illness, and one of the greatest things we can do for them is celebrate that. The depression, anxiety or panic attacks they experience is a part of their life, not the whole of it. They are first and foremost mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, teachers, bankers, builders, and artists. They have gifts and talents, hopes and dreams, so to define them by their illness alone is like defining a sports car by its flat tyre—it misses what is most real and beautiful about them. As one person told me, "Yes, I have Bipolar Disorder. But I also have a great Lego collection. Let's talk about that."
I've been asking people about their experience of mental health recently, and this has been a key lesson learnt for both me and others. We cannot—must not—define people by their illness. "One of my biggest regrets after my mum passed away," Virginia told me, "was that I stopped seeing her. I only saw her illness. If I had my time again, I would listen to her hopes and aspirations and try to support her achieving them—as colourful as that may have been!"
Be a Friend, Not a Social Worker
The way we see someone changes how we relate to them. If we only see a person's illness, we can be tempted to become pseudo-social workers, trying to fix our friend with our good advice, cheer-up talks, pushy prayers, biblical 'answers', or the wonder remedy we heard had cured our neighbour's hairdresser's best friend. The people I spoke with said they didn't need any would-be social workers in their lives. They already had clinicians working on their problems. What they needed were friends.
"In my worst state," Ursula said, "I had friends pitch up with groceries, a meal, or chocolates or flowers. My house was a mess because I lacked the energy to clean it, which embarrassed me, so they took me out for coffee instead. They didn't pressure me to do anything, just made sure I knew they were there. These things helped me more than anything else."
As Sandy told me, "One of the best things anyone can do for me when I'm depressed is ask, 'What can I do to support you?' 'How can I help?' Sometimes all I need is a hug and then to be left alone for a while." This is the stuff of friendship, not social work. And it turns out to be more powerful than we realise.
Don't Be an Expert, Just Be Present
It's helpful to get educated about depression and other forms of mental illness. It's important to know that there are few quick fixes, spiritual or otherwise. And it's good to learn what not to say to someone with poor mental health (this hilarious video is a good crash course). But know this: the way to ultimately help a friend with depression is to be there. To be present. As Lyndal told me, "My plea to my friends during my depression was 'please don't disappear'."
One of the most beautiful examples of this I heard was about a woman I'll call Erica. Erica was in the depths—deeper and darker than most of us will ever reach. But her friend Emily was there. When Erica needed to cry, Emily didn't stop the tears. When Erica needed to scream, Emily didn't quiet her down. When Erica needed hope, Emily had an encouraging word and prayer ready.
At her darkest moment, Erica lay curled up on an armchair one afternoon. She'd lost hope, and Emily had no words left. What Emily did have left was her presence. So she climbed up on to that armchair and hugged her friend. Erica drifted off to sleep. Then Emily did too. And that's how they stayed for the next two hours—two friends embracing in silence, having a nap together. Seven years later, Erica remembers that cuddle more than anything else.
Those who wrestle with mental health want to be seen for the totality of who they are, not defined by their illness. They want us to be their friends, not their problem solvers. And they just need us to be there. Helping a friend through depression or another mental illness will rarely be easy. But it isn't complex or beyond our ability. The simple gift of friendship can work wonders.
Sheridan Voysey is a writer, speaker and broadcaster, frequently contributing to faith programs on BBC Radio 2. His books include Resurrection Year: Turning Broken Dreams into New Beginnings and Resilient: Your Invitation to a Jesus-Shaped Life. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter, and get his free ebook Five Practices for a Resilient Life.