Most of us can craft understanding, even helpful, responses when the folks in our lives have relationship, career or health problems. Even if we can't help them solve the problem, it's easy to come up with the right words to show our support.
Unless the health problem is a mood disorder such as anxiety or depression.
If you know 10 people, chances are that at least one of them is dealing with a mood disorder. An estimated 40 million American adults are living with anxiety/panic disorders and the World Health Organization estimates that 350 million adults worldwide suffer from depression.
But, despite the fact that so many people, especially young women, are living with mood disorders, many of us are not very good at having conversations on the subject.
The truth is - we are simply not nearly as progressive as we like to think when it comes to how we view mental health.
Because the subject of mental health often makes us uncomfortable, our responses can seem either dismissive or judgmental.
We undermine the seriousness of post-partum depression by calling it the "baby blues"; we dismiss the reality of depression among teenagers by calling it "typical teen angst" and we are quick to label the crippling effects of anxiety disorders as just being "too introverted" or socially awkward".
Let's change the conversation.
- The number one rule of being supportive is keeping in mind that a mood disorder is a medical condition. While the root causes, intensity, and duration of symptoms may vary, there is a common denominator - it is an unplanned, unwanted medical condition. Just as no one wakes up and says “I think I’ll choose to be incapacitated by a Lupus flare today”, no one ever - decides “I think I’ll choose to crippled with a Panic attack right after breakfast."
When someone is forthright with you about problems related to their disorder, the first, and probably the best thing you can do is remind yourself that they have not confessed to a moral failing. They have simply informed you of an ongoing medical condition.
It's crucial to realize that living with a mood disorder can be an isolating experience. Because there is so much misunderstanding surrounding mental health issues, it’s a problem that people can be reluctant to disclose - even with close friends or family members. In fact, some people expend enormous amounts of physical, mental and emotional resources to hide their disorder rather than talk about it.
When some does initiate a conversation with you about their mood disorder, it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of platitudes and well-meaning, but misguided advice.
“You're such a good student/parent/worker - you just need to snap out of it...calm down...start thinking positively”
This type of comment, while coming from a place of good intentions, is unintentionally hurtful. Would you suggest that a professional dancer with a broken leg simply stop limping, get back up on stage and continue to twirl? Of course not. Because we can see the injury and understand the physical limitations of the associated symptoms. But, we can’t see anxiety or depression, so it's more difficult to understand that the inability to participate in a social event or the desire to sleep all day are symptoms of an illness, not a lifestyle choice. We need to imagine that the difficulty of operating with an impaired mood is sometimes comparable to dealing with an impaired limb rather than a willful choice.
“You’re young...you have your whole life ahead of you...just wait until you get to be my age and you’ll see what real problems are”
This is possibly one of the worst, though well-meaning, phrases you can utter to a young person who opens up about feeling depressed. One the one hand, it’s incredibly dismissive because it implies that their age invalidates their feelings. On the other hand, you may have also closed the door on future communication.
“You are much too attractive...smart...talented...to feel like that”
These words tell the person that they are wrong, possibly even selfish, for being ill. There is a genetic predisposition to many mood disorders - meaning their mood disorder may be as much a part of their genetic make-up as their physical attractiveness/intelligence/talent.
“I bet you’d feel better if you would just smile...fix yourself up...stop sleeping so much...eat more/eat less...stop worrying about little things so much"
While on the surface, it seems like reasonable advice, let’s go back - again -to the basic point - mood disorders are medical conditions. You might as well say “please stop displaying the symptoms of your medical condition.”
By now you're probably thinking "Okay, so what in the heck SHOULD I say?
There is a time for advice, especially when that advice leads to professional treatment or points to helpful resources.
But, there is also a time just to be a supportive friend or family member who can listen without passing judgment.
That means, sometimes we have to do the hardest thing of all...simply listen without judgment.
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