Mental Health Awareness Month came to an end on June 1. Not even two months later and the conversation has once again died down.
May was filled with speaking up about the realities of living with a mental illness, even offering support and encouragement to those who might need it.
But it’s a devastating truth that, despite this, things seem to be just as they were before: a lack of visibility, a sense of unimportance, and the chorus of supportive voices slowly dwindling.
It happens every year. We spend a month talking about mental health because it’s trending in the news and online. Because it’s “relevant” — even though it’s relevant for those of us living with it 365 days a year.
But mental illness isn’t a trend. It’s not something that should be talked about for just 31 days, garnering a few likes and retweets, only for our news feeds to go silent on the issue afterward.
During the awareness month, we tell people to speak up if they’re struggling. That we’re there for them. That we’re only a phone call away.
We make well-intentioned promises that we’ll show up, but all too often, those promises are empty — a mere two cents tossed out while the topic was still “relevant.”
This needs to change. We need to act on what we’re saying, and make mental health a priority 365 days of the year. This is how.
1. If you say you’re only a phone call away, make sure that’s true
This is a common post I see online: People are “only a text or call away” if their loved ones need to talk. But oftentimes, it’s just not true.
Someone will take them up on this offer only to have their call declined or text ignored, or they receive an ignorant message, dismissing them entirely rather than being willing to listen and offer real support.
If you’re going to tell people to reach out to you when they’re struggling, actually be willing to reply. Don’t give a two-word response. Don’t ignore the calls. Don’t make them regret reaching out to you for help.
Stick to your word. Otherwise, don’t bother saying it at all.
2. Talk about mental health with the people in your life
I see it year after year: People who have never advocated for mental health before, or spoken about wanting to help others with it, suddenly come out of the woodwork because it’s trending.
I’ll be honest: Sometimes those posts feel more obligatory than sincere. When posting about mental health, I’d really encourage people to check in with their intentions. Are you posting because you feel you “should,” because it sounds nice, or because everyone else is? Or do you intend to show up for the people you love in a thoughtful way?
Unlike the surface-level awareness, mental health issues don’t end after one month. You don’t need to make some kind of a grand gesture, either. You can be mindful of mental health in your own life.
Check in with your loved ones who, yes, do need frequent reminders that you’re there. Offer a helping hand if you see someone struggling. Ask people how they’re really doing, even if they seem “fine.”
Being there for the people in your life in a meaningful way is far more important than any status you’ll write during the month of May.
3. Offer advice, but be willing to learn
Too often people will open up to others only to be hit back with ignorant advice or comments: There are people who have it worse. You have nothing to be depressed about. Just get over it.
Know these comments aren’t helpful. They’re actually detrimental to the person with a mental illness. People open up to you because they feel they can trust you. It’s soul-destroying when you prove them wrong.
Listen to what they’re saying, and simply hold the space. Just because you don’t have experience in what they’re telling you doesn’t mean their feelings aren’t valid.
Be willing to learn and understand what they’re saying. Because even if you’re unable to offer proper advice, knowing you’re willing to at least try to understand means the world.
Remember: The little things often matter the most
There are so many things that count as being there for a person with a mental illness that you might not have even realized.
For instance, if a person cancels plans because they’re too anxious to leave the house, don’t get annoyed at them for it and call them a bad friend. Don’t make them feel guilty for living with the same condition you want to raise awareness about.
People may worry that being there for a loved one with mental illness is a big sacrifice or a huge responsibility. This just isn’t the case.
Those of us who struggle with our mental health don’t want to be your responsibility; often our illnesses make us feel like a huge burden as it is. All we really want is someone who understands, or at least takes the time to.
The little things count, even if they don’t feel like “advocacy.” Asking us to go for a coffee gets us out of the house for a little while. Sending a text to check in reminds us that we aren’t alone. Inviting us out to events — even if it’s a struggle to make it — makes us realize that we’re still a part of the gang. Being there as a shoulder to cry on reminds us that we’re cared for.
It may not make for a trending hashtag, but truly being there for someone in their darkest moment is worth so much more.
Hattie Gladwell is a mental health journalist, author, and advocate. She writes about mental illness in hopes of diminishing the stigma and to encourage others to speak out.