What does it mean to be an ally to someone with a mental illness? 

In this week’s blog post, Tulsi shares her tips on how to be a better ally to our friends.

If one in two people are estimated to experience mental ill-health in their lifetime, at least in OECD countries, it leads me to believe that there probably isn’t any sense in categorizing people in terms of  “mentally ill” and “ally”. It after all means that at some point, ALL of us and ANY of us could be the ones ill and struggling, or be an ally to those who are struggling.

Life is a great leveller I suppose – each of us will come bearing the wounds and scars of surviving and living. Some more than others, depending on the skin colour and bodies we come to occupy, the families we’re born in to, the countries we come to exist in, and whether our social structures value our identities and choices or criminalize and marginalize us. But if you are indeed in a position to be in a phase of life with relatively good mental health, have resources and skills to cope, or possess a certain resilience to survive, here are a few steps to be a better ally.

Three baby-steps to becoming a better ally  

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A red/brown dog with long floppy ears sniffs at the top of a black cat’s head. The cat’s yellow eyes are half open and either annoyed or sleepy.
1. Attitude

You are not fortunate or lucky, you are simply in a good phase: As the statistics show, the fact that you are thriving or flourishing right now is a matter of time or phase of life. Feel gratitude, but try not to feel too lucky! Empathy and acceptance for those who are struggling comes only once there is recognition that we all carry vulnerability within us. 

2. Checking-in without being patronizing

The question “are you ok? (think: the classic head-tilt and eye-squint), even if well-intentioned and well-timed, has the potential to hurt or distance those who are struggling. Not everyone has a personality or a set of guiding beliefs that allow them to be energised by the external world and all that it has to offer. Some of us have temperaments that are more internally focused – energised by self-reflection, time spent alone or with a few trusted ones and often, sensitivity to the external world comes with such temperaments.

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A cat rests its paw on a human’s hand, like they are giving each other high-fives.

An “are you ok” question can sometimes serve to highlight the large wellness gap (real or perceived) between the person asking and the person who is being asked. It can make someone who is feeling raw or out of place feel like they have a “NOT COPING” sign plastered across their forehead. It can make someone who is actually fine and only a little bit stressed, feel like they perhaps look like there is something very wrong with them.

A simple check-in like “how are you these days” and taking 5 minutes to listen to the other person, conveys warmth and genuine caring, and it can provide you with information about where the other person is really at. It also gives the struggling person more agency over who they disclose to, as well as when and how much they communicate.

More importantly, it doesn’t put pressure on the person to avoidantly say “yeah, I’m good!” just to get away from you! The last thing you want as an ally is to make people feel like they have to be fake or “on” around you.

3. The fine balance between “me too” and “let me fix it

When our friends are struggling, we generally try to empathise (with the “me too” response) or help them sort out their issues (from a “I can fix you” space). It becomes all too easy to fall into behaviours that focus on you, the ally, and not the person struggling. Watch out for these responses:

  • Jumping in to suggest that you too are in the same boat or know what your friend is experiencing
  • Suggesting that you’ve experienced worse but survived, and now you’re eager to share how you did it.
  • Coming across as “strong” or invulnerable, conveying an ability to help or “fix” things for your friend – which is not helpful if they’re not looking to be taken care of.

The problem with the “me too” response is that it doesn’t always feel like a normalizing experience to the person who is struggling. In fact, it could end up emphasizing feelings of helplessness and hopelessness which your friend could be feeling anyway.

On the other hand, conveying a “let me fix it” type invulnerability might make your struggling friend feel like they’re a hot mess. Both of these types of responses tend to focus on the ally – whether it’s their own struggles, their own anxieties for the other person or their own avoidant/over-compensatory ways of dealing with difficulty or disappointment. As you can see, this is ultimately quite unhelpful for someone having a tough time.

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A large orange cat nuzzles a small white puppy, resting its head on the dog’s face. Both are laying on shrubs in the sunlight.

So how do you find that balance? One way is to first be aware of such urges to respond. Ask yourself where the need to create shared experiences, fix things, and provide hope is coming from? Is it your need or what the other person needs from you?

Another way is to time self-disclosures in such a way as to avoid responding to a disclosure with a disclosure! Focusing first on your friend and their story, and creating a safe space for them to just be, can itself be a strong, holding environment for them. It allows them safety to talk and process their struggles in the reassuring presence of another, and gives them the space to figure out how they want to deal with it and can eventually create a mutually supportive relationship for problem-solving where there are common issues.

We hope to further explore the issue of being a better ally to someone with a mental illness in our future blogs. Have any thoughts or tips to add? Let us know in the comments!

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