UNHELPFUL MYTHS/ADVICE ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH
We've all been there. The moment someone comes into your life with some thoughts about your life, which they know nothing about. It's hard. I've been the one on the receiving end as well as the one dishing out the free advice.
It's no secret that I deal with anxiety and depression on a regular basis. I wrote about it extensively in my book, "Finding Brave." You can purchase it here, if you'd like to read about my journey.
I've noticed something fascinating while dealing with mental health issues these past thirteen years. People have all kinds of ideas about why you might be having that problem, and they also have lots of solutions for you.
I'm all for solutions. I believe there are some practical solutions to the problems of anxiety and depression. I really do. I am free from the chains of anxiety because I used some well researched solutions. I'm all about it!
However, I thought I'd share a list of "what not to do or say" when encountering a friend or family member who is struggling emotionally.
Are you ready?
Beware, the snark might be a little strong at times.
1. YOU WILL BE FINE
Have you ever struggled to breathe? I mean, the type of breathlessness that comes after a hard fall, where all your air has been quite literally knocked out of you? You know the way your mind races as you attempt to draw sweet air into your lungs? Your eyes dart from side to side as if to find someone to help you with what seems impossible at the moment. You just want to breathe.
That is how so many of the people around you feel on a daily basis. Their mind races, their eyes dart, their breath catches in their throat. Add on top of that, nausea, dizziness, chest pain, and you have the definition of a panic attack. Death feels close and yet you can’t understand what will finally take you, an actual adverse event, or your own fear.
Imagine you have just had the breath knocked out of you and it’s been a full thirty seconds of waiting for a good breath. Now imagine someone walking up to you, putting their hand on your arm and saying “You will be fine.”
“I will be fine?” your mind races in a sarcastic retort.”I might be fine later, but I’m not in this moment! I just need to breathe and that part of my body isn’t working right!” You might roll your eyes at the absurdity of the comment being made to you. It didn’t help you in any way, except maybe remind you that someone was there just in case you needed an ambulance.
People who live their lives from one mental health challenge to the next face this quandary more often than not. It is the tendency of humans to want to speak to a person in pain or anguish with a reassuring comment rather than do nothing. I completely understand this tendency. I have done it many times myself. I admit that I’ve said the same thing to my children a hundred times. “You will be fine.” I say it when they get a minor cut. I say it when they are stressed out about a test. I say it whenever I don’t know exactly what to say.
When someone is having a mental crisis, they don’t feel fine, they can’t imagine feeling fine and they don’t even know what to do in the next moment. In those terrifying seconds, all they see is an insurmountable challenge staring them in the face and they don’t see a way around or over it.
They don’t need a step by step instructional manual in that moment. They don’t need platitudes. They aren’t looking to you to solve everything that’s going wrong. They need one thing. They need your presence.
You may think I’m talking about the type of presence where you just stand there with them, or hold them while they struggle. That might be helpful, and you can certainly ask them.
However, I’m talking about being a true presence in their lives. Ask them what they need...right then, right there. Don’t ask a million questions right in succession, but get to the root of what you can do to be helpful.
Say, “I’m here. Whatever you need, I’m here.” Sometimes just knowing that they don’t have to figure out how to survive on their own is enough. There’s plenty of time for doctor’s visits, long, healing sessions with a counselor, and a discussion about what practical steps to take next. But, more than likely, during a crisis, they don’t need a run down of their next assignment. They need your presence.
Walking with someone who doesn’t know how to function is tough. I won’t sugarcoat it. They can frustrate and annoy you...especially if you have no way to empathize with their pain. Add on top of those frustrations the fact that many times they won’t do what’s needed to get better, and it can be a recipe for disaster. No one is perfect. But, may I remind you, when I say no one is perfect...neither are you. You have shortcomings in your life that you aren’t tackling. And yet you would enjoy having empathy from another when you hit roadblocks.
I believe it’s important to remember that people who have depression or anxiety want to get well, and often don’t know how to make that happen. They go through ebbs and flows of commanding emotions which try to dictate their reality. They might have extreme mountains and valleys within one week’s time and deal with incredibly frustrating voices in their heads telling them they can’t do it. They aren’t able to ever be normal again. It doesn’t matter that no one is normal. It doesn’t matter that the person sitting beside them walks through other types of pain and suffering. All they see is that they can’t even get out of bed or walk out the door without a reminder that they aren’t enough.
Tell them you are there for them. Mean it. Do what’s needed to remind them they can do harder things than they thought they could. Hold their hand and walk out the door. Rub their back. Draw their bath and light their candles. Make some hot tea. Entertain the kids with a quiet game in a separate room.
Whatever you do, don’t just pat them on the shoulder with a patronizing smile and say, “You will be fine.”
2. ANXIETY ISN'T REAL. IT'S ALL IN YOUR HEAD
Well, yeah. That’s the problem. There is something wrong in their head, namely their brain, and their nervous system, and possibly their entire body. But, saying it isn’t real is like telling a diabetic that the coma they just entered into isn’t real. Even though the diabetic’s pancreas isn’t producing insulin to keep them from entering that coma, you could tell them that their coma is imagined. Because that would be so helpful and wise. I would advise you to not say something so unsubstantiated. Anxiety is just as real as Diabetes. It’s not made up. It’s not pretend. It’s not people being over dramatic.
I realize that mental health challenges are multi-faceted. There are times when people could be doing more to get well. There are so many resources out there to help people live their best life...literally. However, to act like the actual disease process of depression isn’t real is just ignorant at best. Do you suppose brain scans and years of scientific research are just fabricated out of thin air? Do you really think that hundreds of thousands of people are making up a problem so they can “get out of things?”
Oh, I wish I could tell you how it feels...I mean how it really feels to be going out of your mind with an anxiety attack and the next moment read a post on social media which declares you are imagining your panic. It’s not real, it’s all in your head. You should be able to just buckle down and figure it out.
I’m all for hard work and self improvement, believe me. I would love to be able to snap my fingers and declare, “I am well! It’s not real! This depression is a figment of my imagination!” Wouldn’t that be lovely.
Yes, it would be lovely. Just as it would be wonderful to snap your fingers and get rid of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, sciatic nerve problems. What needs to happen for those diseases to be healed? Sometimes surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, heart medications, exercise, change of diet, insulin, chiropractic care. The list goes on.
In each of the aforementioned diseases, a prescription of some time is warranted and will only work if the patient agrees to do what’s required. Even then, sometimes the cancer returns, the heart stops beating, the insulin isn’t enough, the sciatic nerve pain comes back with a vengeance.
We are human beings with fragile and finite bodies that don’t work correctly. It’s not pretty, it’s not fun, it’s not ideal. But, let’s stop pretending that one type of health challenge is legitimate and the other isn’t.
Can you imagine if two friends sat down for a drink and a pastry at a coffee shop. They haven’t seen each other for a while and they are there to catch up with one another. After the obligatory hello and small talk, they finally get down to the fine details of their lives. “I just found out I have a cancerous mass in my brain,” one says to the other. The person sitting across the table looks quizzically at the cancer patient and shakes their head. “You know, that’s not real. It’s all in your head,” she says, giving a look of shame for emphasis. “If you would just snap out of it and shake it off, it wouldn’t even bother you anymore.”
Yeah, you can’t imagine that, and it’s a very good thing you can’t, my friend. That conversation has no business taking place. And neither does a conversation like that around the topic of mental health. We’ve got to stop saying ignorant things that contribute nothing to the world but condemnation and shame.
People who are anxious or depressed already feel behind, cast down, embarrassed, and afraid of what people think. The last thing they need is someone talking to them directly or behind their back about how they are imagining all of it.
So what do they need?
They need you to do a little research and find out what so many know to be the truth. Depression and anxiety are as real as any other disease process. The brain doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to. The body doesn’t always run perfectly. Things misfire and levels go wacky and cells don’t behave the way they were created to. Just as the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, the body doesn’t always produce enough serotonin.
Now, I admit this is a superficial and over simplified explanation. There are so many things we could say on this topic. People don’t have to be as sick as they are. There are many times that people get lazy and don’t do what’s required to get better. I get that. Or, they try to get better and the cancer or heart disease leads them to their death. It’s a hard reality of life. Even the best patients, following the best advice, doing all the right things, face a repeat diagnosis. In the same way, imagining that people with mental health problems should be able to magically make their problems go away is simply wrong.
So the next time you hear someone discuss a person with anxiety or depression and say those ignorant words, “It’s all in their head,” kindly respond with, “I know, I feel so bad for them. Their brain isn’t functioning the way it should and that has to be so hard for them to keep going every day. Why don’t we see if they need anything?” That’s a much better way to look at the situation.
3. IF YOU WOULD EXERCISE AND CHANGE YOUR DIET, YOUR ANXIETY/DEPRESSION WOULD GO AWAY
How many of you have been on the receiving end of a message from a person you barely know, telling you about the latest supplement guaranteed to make all your dreams come true? It happens quite often to me. I don’t know if it’s because people know I struggle with anxiety or if it’s because I have a few pounds to lose, but I seem to be the target of their helpfulness more often than not.
Healthy eating and exercise are essential for everyone. Does everyone live that way? No.
If we all ate perfectly every single day and exercised faithfully from the time we were born, we wouldn’t get sick or die, would we?
Wait...maybe we would. Maybe we would still get diseases and have problems and die, actually. Do health freaks not get sick? Do supplement pushers never face cancer diagnosis’? Do marathon runners never die from heart attacks?
We all know the answers to those questions. Even the healthiest people face health challenges. I remember when someone suggested that I change my diet to help with my anxiety. I figured they might know something I didn’t. So I tried it...for a very long time. Did my anxiety go away? I’m afraid not. And, I’m not the only one who has had similar results. I’ve known several people with mental health problems who have tried special diets, exercise plans and supplements to try and erase their anxiety and depression, and while it may have lessened the severity of it, the tendency to mental breakdowns was still very much alive.
I wish there was a magic pill, a perfect diet plan, a life-changing exercise routine that would erase the effects of mental health problems. I don’t think it exists. That’s not to say those things aren’t helpful...indeed they are! When people lessen their sugar intake, it makes a huge difference not only on the way their body functions, but on their mood as well. Irritability lessens, the mind thinks better and productivity increases. When people exercise, the uptake of serotonin increases, which makes the whole world look better. And there are deficiencies in our bodies that are often remedied by a supplement. All of these methods should be adopted for anyone, and most definitely for those of us who struggle with mood disorders.
However, acting as if those methods will cure someone’s depression or anxiety is foolish and unhelpful. It is actually quite discouraging. In the mind of the person dealing with anxiety, they begin to blame themselves for their problems without any proof of that. They just begin to assume that they must be doing something wrong.
My advice to the advice givers? Don’t make it sound like whatever you’re selling is going to answer every problem they’ve ever had. It won’t. Human beings haven’t found the fountain of youth, and they will continue to search for it until the end of time.
4. ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION ARE SINFUL
If clinical anxiety and depression are sinful, then so are ulcers and asthma.
I often wonder where people get their definition of sin. If you aren’t a Christian and you are reading this, please indulge me for a moment, or skip over this part altogether. One of the most unhelpful myths about anxiety and depression disorders is that they are a sin you can be delivered from.
Now, to be fair, the Bible does say “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phillippians 4:6-7 ESV). If the Bible tells us not to be anxious, and we are anxious anyway, doesn’t that mean we are sinning?
Well, first of all, that verse is specifically dealing with not obsessing over our problems, but instead remembering to give our cares to God and allowing Him to take care of them. There is a peace that comes from giving our cares over to the One who can ultimately fix what needs fixing.
I personally believe that the sinful part comes in to play when we worry needlessly over things that we know better about. We know we should stop obsessing about how everything is going to turn out and yet we continue to stew in it. If God convicts us of that and we ignore His kind reprimand, then we might be entering into the sin zone (did I just make up a phrase?)
Let’s be honest about something though. We know that Jesus lived on this earth as a human, without sin. Jesus also had intense anxiety in the garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion on the cross. He had such intense anxiety that the Bible says He “sweat drops of blood.” That’s some intense fear! We can all acknowledge that Christ was without sin, and yet we can all acknowledge that Christ dealt with human anxiety.
There are times when the feeling of dread someone is dealing with is simply physical. We don’t need to over spiritualize their issues and say they just need to give it to God. Of course they need to give it to God, much like you need to give things you are dealing with to God. We all would live better lives if we operated from a place of perfection where we always surrendered every negative emotion to God.
For people with mental health challenges, the sin is not in having the disease, the sin is when it controls every aspect of their lives. After they have done all they can, surrendered all they can, they have to accept that they will need to once again get out of bed in the morning and give their worries to God.
Referring to anxiety and depression as sin does nothing to help your friends who suffer. It alienates them and makes their struggle even more disheartening. If you are in a relationship with someone who deals with this, remember to address specific issues as sin, not their mental health status. (And only if you are in a discipleship or mentoring relationship with them...otherwise, it’s just weird).
5. EVERYONE HAS PTSD THESE DAYS. THEY ARE MAKING IT UP.
Oh that’s right...because there’s nothing that makes you more popular than struggling with trauma. It’s a real conversation starter and makes life special.
It makes no sense that people would make that up. There are only a very few people that would find that entertaining. The truth is, most of us have grown up with misconceptions regarding trauma. We imagine trauma to be what soldiers or policemen deal with. We nod our heads in sympathy when we hear someone’s story about their experience with PTSD...unless we think that person doesn’t deserve to be pitied. If their traumatic experience doesn’t strike us as difficult enough, then we are tempted to label them as dramatic.
Here’s the truth about trauma. Trauma is anything unexpected that your body/mind doesn’t know how to handle. The degrees of trauma vary, but what doesn’t change is that it does affect your body and mind. I understand that some people appear able to handle the unexpected better than others, but they even the most stoic have to process what has happened to them. What is unfortunate is that a lot of people don’t understand what even “minor” traumatic events are doing to them until it’s too late. A mental health crisis happens and suddenly they find themselves in a Counselor’s office trying to figure out why the world is upside down.
In my case, I was able to eventually look back over my life and see several traumatic events in my childhood differently. Alone, they were difficult. But, because I never processed them correctly, they piled on top of each other and buried latent fear and anxiety deep within my conscience. I didn’t know I had a problem because I had always figured out a way to deal with what was creeping at the door.
When changes in my life upset my equilibrium, I couldn’t keep it down any longer, and I began having serious symptoms of anxiety, but not just any type of panic, the type that most often accompanies PTSD.
My counselor began to see that I was dealing with more than just a “little bit of anxiety,” and that we needed to get to the root of the problem. Through extensive counseling and therapy, I was able to address the trigger than lived deep inside my brain. It was as if my brain needed to be healed and rewired.
I still have to prioritize my mental health and see a professional counselor regularly. I’m so much better at dealing with the unexpected, but I do still struggle with it.
I find it ironic that people can’t be understanding to the way people deal with traumatic events differently than them. I’ve heard it all, I think. People witness someone being overdramatic (in their mind) and can’t understand what would make them think they could be dealing with PTSD. They might point to people in other countries who go through horrific experiences and are seemingly fine. But, do you realize that our definitions of “fine” are extremely subjective? We don’t know what people who are seemingly fine might go through day after day, night after night. Perhaps those of us in the western world are more pampered and struggle with difficulty adjusting when things go wrong. But, maybe that’s just a myth.
The point is, it’s none of your business whether someone deserves to have PTSD or not. Professionals who study this field for a living are finding out fascinating discoveries about the brain. We know more about how it responds to trauma. We better understand appropriate ways to heal the effects of the trauma.
It doesn’t help people who deal with the ramifications of traumatic events to hear that they should be able to better handle what happened to them. It doesn’t help at all.
6. IF YOU IGNORE IT AND JUST KEEP GOING, IT WILL GO AWAY
Think about that statement.
Really think about it.
Does it translate to anything else in your life? Would that make sense if we were talking about literally anything else we were dealing with?
If you are a runner and have a broken ankle, and continue to run...to keep going, will that broken ankle stop being broken? No, of course not. You would need to see a Doctor, have him set it and then submit yourself to the healing process. You would run again, but you would have to take some time off to heal. You couldn't ignore it and imagine it would suddenly disappear.
Have you ever had a different kind of situation in your life that you just kept ignoring, thinking after some time, surely it would disappear? Maybe you are dealing with deep seated anger of what someone in your past did or said to you. You've pushed it down over and over again thinking that eventually it would disappear. And yet, something reminds you of it, and you feel those familiar responses creeping back up. Things don't just disappear because we ignore them.
Some of us are more inclined to that kind of coping mechanism and others deal with things as they come. No matter what our tendency is, I understand the inclination to put our emotional health on the back burner. Self care is commonly the first thing to go. We think we need to hit our deadlines, or on the flipside, continue in our lazy, bad habits. I get it. It’s not easy to face the fact that we aren’t doing very well. It’s also easier to place convenience over healing. Diving into our emotional issues is difficult and typically a longer path than we think we have time for.
In my case, I had to let inconvenience have it's place in my life so I could take the time to heal. I needed to spend the money for counseling. I needed to carve out time in my schedule. I needed to take medication when I couldn't leave my house to drive anywhere. I couldn't pretend like my mental health would just magically improve. I had to do something.
If you are struggling with anxiety or depression and think you can ignore it...you can't.
If someone you love is struggling, don't tell them to distract themself until it goes away. It won't work. It will come back. It won't be quiet until it's dealt with. Help them deal with it.
7. IF YOU HAD ENOUGH FAITH, YOU WOULDN'T FEAR
I think a lot about heroes. The people we look up to in life...in history. As a Christ follower, I think often about the people mentioned in the Scriptures. Abraham, Noah, Moses, Ruth, Esther, Joshua, Joseph. The list could go on and on, but you get the point. When it comes to fear, we don’t put those people in the fearful category, and yet they had moments of anxiety. Sometimes we read about it implicitly, and other times we infer those emotions from a place behind the text. Even though Joseph seems like this great leader who had anointed abilities, I’m sure he was terrified when he was sold as a slave, when he was thrown into prison, and when he was brought before Pharaoh.
When Abraham left his people to head into unknown territory, you have to know he was afraid. And yet, he is known as a man of great, great faith. Fear does not infer a lack of faith. It’s what we do with our fear that matters. Because he chose to do great things while afraid, we don't think of Abraham as a man of fear...rather we know him as a man of faith, who, understandably, had moments of fear.
In the case of anxiety, it can be tricky because it seems as though Jesus is inviting us into a place where we don’t have to struggle with fear because He asks us to give up our control. He invites us to lay our cares at His feet. He says His yoke is easy and His burden is light. He has plans to give us a future and a hope. We know all the ways we are supposed to think about our struggles, about our lives. And yet, while we are on this planet, we will continue to fear, in spite of our faith.
Don't buy into the lie that you are discounted from the title "Christ follower" or "man/woman of faith" because you struggle with anxiety and/or depression.
I'd like to encourage you to try this. Next time your heart is full of fear, and your mind is determined to act like a human, pray like the psalmist, David,
“Hear my cry, O God; from the ends of the earth I cry to You, when my heart is overwhelmed, lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For you are a shelter for me, a strong tower from the enemy…” Psalm 61:1-3