In our new #Take5 series, we release a short 5-point post on the 5th of each month.
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Given the pervasiveness of mental health issues in academia, sometimes it’s all you can do to take care of yourself. But if you’re doing okay and you’re in a place where you want to do more to support the mental health of those around you, here are a few tips. Any other suggestions? Feel free to add your ideas in the comments below!
1. Actively pay attention to the well-being of those around you. We know that mental health issues are prevalent – as high as 50% in some graduate student populations. But stigma and a culture of silence make it difficult for your colleagues to share when they are struggling with mental health. It’s likely that you know someone who is struggling in silence. So try to cultivate the habit of actually listening when you ask “how are you”?
2. Educate yourself. Your colleague who is dealing with mental illness already has a significant burden to bear. Don’t add to it by forcing them to educate you on the basics of their mental illness (“So, you have BPD? That’s like bipolar disorder, right?”). While you don’t want to overgeneralize or make assumptions, taking the time to educate yourself shows that you care and helps to create a safe environment for sharing and support-seeking.
3. Realize that your language matters. References to mental illness creep into language, regardless of whether we intend to talk about it directly. Organizing our shared office space, I might remark that I’m totally OCD and can’t write in a messy space. Facing yet another manuscript rejection, I might lament that the process is making me depressed. Dealing with an upcoming deadline, I might describe my stress as a panic attack. Using these terms casually can suggest that these problems are so common that they’re not serious, which can be a barrier to seeking help.
4. Try to offer tangible support, but do so consistently. You could offer to be a listening ear, or set up a once-a-week work date to help keep a struggling colleague on track. But if you’re going to help, be sure you can do so consistently, keeping in mind your own limitations (you are also a stressed out grad student!). For many people with mental illnesses, supports that appear and disappear can be challenging, as they can add uncertainty to daily life and trigger feelings of rejection.
5. Understand that no matter how much you learn about mental health, there is no “recipe” or “to-do list” for perfect ally behaviour. Every struggle with mental illness is unique, and even for a given person, the kind of support needed can change over time. This is why, for example, it’s better to ask your colleagues what they need, rather than assume based on past experience or something you’ve read online (like this list!).
For more on being a mental health ally, check out these posts:
- What Does It Mean to be an Ally to Someone with a Mental Illness?
- Supporting Your Colleagues Who Have Anxiety Disorders: Some Thoughts and Reflections
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And check out last month’s post on 5 Ways to Break Out of the Anxiety Trap!