When we talk about mental health, there is always a focus on the extremes; what if someone has a problem? Where can someone get help? How can I recognise things?
This leaves those with chronic mental health conditions in a difficult situation as these extremes are the only examples we talk about. This emphasis creates the impression that these conditions exist only on this level, that someone with depression is a criticism away from a full blown breakdown, or that someone with social anxiety is going to melt down as soon as they get into a conversation with a stranger. Or at least it can feel this way for these people.
These feelings lead to those of us with mental health conditions feeling like we cannot be open unless we want to be treated like a fragile ornament or be totally defined by our conditions. This then leads to the behaviour and coping mechanisms caused by these conditions being viewed as strange as opposed to what they are. This could be someone with social anxiety avoiding a night out at a club as a method of managing their anxiety. By the same token, sometimes someone with depression just has a bad day and won’t feel like doing anything, this can’t be helped.
“Those around them being aware removes so much stress for people with mental health conditions”
So what can people do in order to counteract these problems? Whilst this will obviously be primarily through the lens of depression, anxiety and social anxiety as this is the frame I can use, there are still general lessons that you can take.
The most important thing is in some ways the most obvious: being aware of someone’s condition and what that entails both generally and specifically to that person. This means being able to take things into account and working with or around it. To use the earlier example of someone with social anxiety avoiding a night out at a club, if their friends were aware of this they could in future have more variety socially, from a movie night in to potentially even just going for a drink in a quieter pub. Those around them being aware removes so much of the stress for people with mental health conditions: they don’t have to worry about how their behaviour comes across, don’t feel alienated for something out of their control and, most importantly, feel understood and appreciated for who they are.
There is a spectrum
This feels rather obvious but with the focus most of the time in any sort of mental health awareness context being upon the extremes it is important to remember that these things do range on a chronic basis from the mild to these extremes. Someone with a diagnosis of anxiety could be someone who would be overwhelmed by acting in front of a packed theatre, or could be someone who will struggle with even being the focus of a group discussion or giving a presentation in a seminar. Knowing that these conditions range outside of the most extreme examples is important as it makes being involved with these people less daunting and aids awareness of how to coexist easily.
Don’t try to push boundaries too far
You can’t change fundamentally how our conditions control who we are. Whilst we are often working on improving ourselves and pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones it is important that you don’t push too far and let us do it at our own pace. The steps being taken may seem too small, but small steps successfully over a longer period is better than trying to run before you can walk and falling flat on your face.
Things aren’t static
Along the same lines, those who have these conditions know things can change a lot in even a short time. Personally, I am in a completely different, and better, place from the beginning of the academic year. This means that you shouldn’t necessarily shut the door on those you encounter with mental health conditions forever. Just as someone can go downhill quickly (and in this case you should push them to get help), they can also get better quickly. So if you feel that the allowances you would need to make for someone are too great or if you have a negative experience due to their condition, this can change and it may be worth giving them another chance.
“people often feel self-conscious and won’t necessarily be upfront about things”
Overall, I would say that awareness of an individual’s condition and how it manifests itself is definitely the most important thing. It’s also worth bearing in mind, even if you’re dealing with a stranger, the common ways that some of these conditions can manifest: people often feel self-conscious and won’t necessarily be upfront about things that could affect the impression they leave on those they meet. This means that awkward behaviour could be more a function of this than that behaviour being representative of that person’s everyday life.
Being aware of these conditions on a more everyday level reduces the stress that we feel and allows us to be who we are, for better or worse, more easily. This also means that you can meet and make friends you wouldn’t be able to otherwise, and have more fun as a result!
Image courtesy of Marie. L. on Flickr