Recently, I revealed to a friend that I was coming out of a rough patch.
“I didn’t know that,” my friend said. “Why didn’t you reach out?”
Friends are busy with lives of their own, and may not notice small signs that could indicate a problem.Credit:Stocksy
Why didn’t I reach out? It was an excellent question. I know it’s important to ask for help when you’re lonely, or feeling down, but, like so many people, I find that very hard to do.
Campaigns such as R U OK? Day have raised awareness of mental health issues and encouraged people to check on their friends. But our friends are busy with lives of their own, and may not notice small signs that could indicate a problem. We, as individuals who suffer from depression or anxiety or loneliness, need to speak up, reach out, and ask for help.
But reaching out can make us feel intensely vulnerable, and can open us up to rejection. For many people, reaching out goes against cultural norms or what we feel are society’s expectations.
Reach out, the experts say, but no-one tells us how.
And so, I took the question to Dr Grant Blashki, lead clinical adviser for Beyond Blue, and we came up with a plan.
1. Recognise the barriers to reaching out
Many people experiencing anxiety or depression believe others are going to judge them, and, Dr Blashki says, most people overestimate how well everyone else is coping. If you’re nervous about reaching out, remember that social media does not reflect reality and that no-one is as fabulous as they look online. A whopping two million of Australians will suffer from anxiety in any given year, and one million will suffer from depression.
Research conducted by Beyond Blue suggests most people are very forgiving and supportive of mental health issues, so if you are brave enough to ask for help, you are likely to be met with understanding and compassion.
2. If possible, be upfront
The ideal approach to asking for help is to be upfront and direct. Contact a friend and say something like, “I'm having a terrible time at the moment, I don't want to be alone, can I join you?”
If you fear the person may not understand your mental health challenge, Dr Blashki suggests the educational sheets available on the Beyond Blue website, covering issues such as depression, anxiety and self-harm. These forms offer simple explanations for your loved ones, which can help to show them your condition is real and valid.
3. If you can’t be upfront, be indirect
The indirect approach to seeking support is to plan ahead to ward off solitude and loneliness. Dr Blashki encourages his patients not to leave things to chance, and schedule arrangements well ahead of time. If holidays are coming up, he recommends contacting friends and saying something like, “It would be great to get together at Christmas.”
He also suggests that vulnerable people try to make recurring plans, for example, to catch up with a friend once a week for breakfast, or to go for a walk with a neighbour every weekend.
4. Go online, but be selective
The internet can be an amazing tool for connection and support, but it can also leave you vulnerable to abuse and trolling. For a safe option, choose a moderated forum such as a closed Facebook group or mental health forum, rather than the free-for-all that is Reddit or Twitter. Dr Blashki recommends the peer support forum run by Beyond Blue, which is available to Australians all year, including Christmas Day.
5. Understand that not everyone will get it
Awareness of mental health issues and the epidemic of loneliness has vastly increased in recent years. If you reach out, you are likely to be met with kindness and empathy. But there will always be people who don’t understand, or are critical, annoying or unhelpful. Dr Blashki recommends you use your judgement and stay away from people who are unable to give you what you need.
6. If you need professional help, seek it
The best place to start is a GP. However, you don’t need to see your regular practitioner if you find him or her unapproachable. Dr Blashki suggests you ask the receptionist at your local surgery to recommend a GP who is good with mental health. The government website HeadToHealth is excellent and has a comprehensive list of resources and service providers, including emergency numbers to call in a mental health crisis.
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