Mental health support: why you should ask your friends if they’re really OK this week

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Alix Walker
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Research shows 78% of people will say they’re fine, even if they’re not. As mental health campaign Time To Change reveals that one in three of us put off asking a friend about their mental health, Stylist looks at the importance behind the simple question ‘are you OK?’.

Self-care: total crock. Every time someone’s Instagram post refers to their trip to a spa or consumption of green juice as ‘self-care’ (and there are 5.6 million of them) I feel like a thousand spiders are crawling over my skin. 

I’m not sure if it’s because it sounds like a code word for masturbation, or if it’s because it’s just so American. But that brazen self-indulgence (just FYI I’m totally pro self-indulgence) masqueraded as personal therapy gives me the same feeling as when someone posts how many miles they ran before breakfast, or calls someone ‘this one’, or dances in a bar while staring at their phone like they’re in a rap video. (I think posting pictures of your children doing something cute when they’ve spent 99% of the day behaving like giant morons also falls into the same category, as does taking pictures of food on a marble surface, and I do both of these things regularly so I am a complete hypocrite, I am aware). 

Mental health support: spas as self-care? No thanks.

Before I’m taken down by a thousand yogis, let me backtrack a little. I am so into being kind to yourself. And I know very well from my own experience how crucial it is to find the thing that keeps your mind on a healthy path and practise it as much as humanly possible. And that when we’re pulled in roughly 25,000 directions every week, forcing yourself to prioritise that thing is bloody hard, so giving it a name can make it feel a little more permissible.  

It’s just that self-care feels like another thing to add to my to-do list, another responsibility that is mine alone. And I think that when it comes to mental health, thinking that it’s down to your ‘self’ alone to manage it is dangerous. Because often, when the need for self-care is really desperate, you’re so oblivious to it, or feel so undeserving of it, that you couldn’t begin to pinpoint that need, never mind talk about it. 

When your brain starts wandering off path, into a place it feels so hard to get back from, and when it’s spiralling and foggy – there’s rarely a green juice or bowl of chia seeds in the world that could pull it back on track. If your mind is intent on destroying its ‘self’, it cannot fall on you to take care of yourself. And often times it takes someone other than you to spot that.

So I’m advocating ‘friend-care’ (working on another name for it…). One in four people will experience some kind of mental health problem every year, meaning someone you know is, right now, on the verge of going under. I know from my own mental health issues (another story, another time) that when I was at my lowest, what I really needed was for someone to ask me if I was OK. And when I said I was fine, totally fine, for them to ask me again. And again. And again. (There is a limit to this when you risk being punched, by the way.) 

And it’s not simply friends, it’s colleague-care too. It’s opening our eyes to everyone around us and, just as we’d notice the bleeding leg or the giant bruise, looking to see if we can spot how that person is doing on the inside. Even if at first glance they’re firing on all cylinders, bossing it at work and looking like they’ve got a personal stylist. Take a few extra minutes to really look and listen. To notice that the colleague sitting opposite you hasn’t eaten lunch in weeks because she’s “too busy”, to think twice about your sister’s flippant comment that “she can’t sleep at the minute”, or to wonder why your friend keeps cancelling plans, rather than being offended that she does. Then asking them if they’re OK. Really OK. 

In my experience, one of the hardest thing about mental health problems is how many years they can steal. How many years you can spend pretending you’re “just fine” when you’re at best treading water and at worst dragging along the seabed, tangled in a big old clump of seaweed. Because you can’t often see a mental health issue, you can hide them from others and from yourself. But if you’re asked outright if you’re OK, it might be the reminder you need that it’s not your responsibility alone to manage it. And it might just halt that cycle before it goes on too long. Or gets too deep. 

Mental health support: “If you’re asked outright if you’re OK, it might be the reminder you need that it’s not your responsibility alone to manage it.”

Of course, it’s not always easy to ask someone if they’re OK. No one wants to say the wrong thing, and of course they could well be just fine and you risk looking like a bit of a twit. So I asked Jo Loughran, director of Time to Change, the mental health anti-stigma movement led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, how to broach the subject if you think your friend, or colleague, or family member is suffering from a mental health issue. Here is what she advised:

1. Starting a conversation. If you’re worried about a friend or colleague then simply asking them how they are feeling is a good start. You don’t have to set aside hours to chat and it doesn’t need to be formal, or even face-to-face. Often people find it easier to talk while doing something else – like on a walk or while cooking, or watching TV.

2. What should I say? The most important thing to remember is that you don’t need to be an expert. Your friend doesn’t expect you to solve their problems:just being there will mean a lot. Take the lead and ask questions – don’t be afraid to ask how they’ve been.

3. What shouldn’t I say? If someone has opened up to you try not to brush their problems under the carpet and avoid clichés like ‘it’ll pass’ or ‘what have you got to be depressed about’.

4. Listen. Listening without judging can be as important and significant as talking. The fear of being judged is a huge barrier for many people speaking out about mental health. You might not understand what they’re going through but that’s OK.

5. Support. There are professional support options out there. Reassure your friend that it’s OK to ask for help.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with mental health issues at work, you can find more information on Mind’s website here.

This feature was originally published in May 2018

Images: Getty, Hian Oliveira, Soragrit Wongsa, Brian Agua