Often at my talks I will ask the audience to put up their hand if they, or someone they know, has experienced a mental illness? Almost every time, every hand in the room goes up. Take a moment to reflect on this question yourself … Chances are that the answer is yes, given that 45% of us will over our lifetime. That’s almost half of the population yet how many of us know how to identify and respond to someone experiencing a mental illness?
There’s been some fantastic work done over the past few years to educate, de-stigmatise and skill people up to be able to help someone going through an episode of mental illness but I honestly worry that we still have much work to do and in the meantime many will suffer and lives will be lost unnecessarily.
My personal experience, and discussions with many people about mental illness and suicide, has convinced me that no-one is totally immune to mental illness and suicidal thoughts. I have been blown away by friend’s and audience member’s stories of suicide attempts, or ideation, because they have been shared by people who I never would have expected to have been there. The topic has been taboo for so long that most people guard this information fiercely for fear of judgement and due to shame.
One friend, a high achieving professional woman, contemplated suicide to end the mental suffering she was experiencing as a result of isolation and shame she felt following her mother’s death and extended estrangement from her siblings. She had become plagued by thoughts that she had caused her children to miss out on love and opportunities that should have been their birthright and therefore what was the good of her?
Now this was a women who is educated, has won business awards, has a network of friends, and a loving home life. She said that the only thing that stopped her from acting on her thoughts was having seen the impact on a community when one of her children’s educators died by suicide. Thankfully she’s now well again, having discovered one of my favourite tools, neurolinguistic programming (NLP) and connecting in with a women’s circle which has accelerated her healing.
I’m passionate about building awareness of mental illness and the skills needed to assist and support someone experiencing such a challenge so that no-one has to walk the path that some of us have found ourselves on.
Following are three tips that I recommend for equipping yourself to help the people in your life:
If you notice changes in a friend, eg. they’re much quieter than usual or withdrawing, talking about insomnia, their diet or appetite has changed, they’ve dropped their normal activities or are just not themselves, please ask if they’re ok. Be prepared to listen without judgment and make sure that you have the time and willingness to hear them out. Often just talking to someone can make a huge difference. If it becomes clear that they’re struggling, you can work with them to explore options for help. These could include professional or other supports. There’s some excellent resources to guide you to develop these skills such as those which can be found at RUOK? and Beyond Blue. This is also something that we go into in great detail on at a Mental Health First Aid course, allowing participants the opportunity to build and refine these practical skills.
Sometimes we need to do more than ask ‘are you ok?’. If you are really worried about someone the best thing you can do is to ask “Are you thinking of ending your life?”. This can be a confronting question the first few times that you ask it, however, as with most things in life it get’s easier with practice.
Sometimes people feel scared and worried that asking the question may put the idea into someone’s head. The research demonstrates that this isn’t the case and in fact the question can save a life. I am confident that if someone had asked me I would have said yes and I’ve seen this question work in many different scenarios. I consistently saw it make a difference on the phones as a crisis supporter and occasionally when I have asked friends I’ve suspected are struggling they have said “yes” and we’ve been able to chat about how they move out of that space. Mental Health First Aid has a comprehensive guideline on their website for supporting someone experiencing suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
Take the step to educate and skill yourself up to help support those you care when they are experiencing mental health challenges. The resources I’ve mentioned will give you some great skills if you practice and apply them. If you’d like to take it to the next level, increasing your understanding of mental illness and honing the practical skills needed to provide excellent mental health first aid to someone, I’d highly recommend signing up for a Mental Health First Aid course. I have trained to deliver this course because I feel like it’s my purpose to open people’s minds to the risks that mental illness create for our society and to be part of creating a world where more people get the help they need and can live flourishing lives.
You can find out about my upcoming Mental Health First Aid course here.
Donna Thistlethwaite is a speaker, Mental Health First Aid trainer and coach specialising in wellbeing and psychological safety. With a lived experience of suicide, she is passionate about ensuring that others don’t walk the path she took and instead understand and access the fulfilling life available to us all.