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For Those of Us Who Don't Understand

“Have you tried just getting up and doing something?”

“You just need to stop drinking.”

“Why do you want to be unhappy?”

These are some of the statements presented as pick-me-ups to people dealing with mental health issues. There’s a lot of shame implied by these statements. 

I’m ashamed to write them...

… particularly because I’ve said each of these things to a real person facing real issues. Actually, I said them to a family member who deals with depression and is a recovering addict. These were issues I did not understand. And through my statements, I was far too quick to dismiss these issues as being some kind of artificial construct that she could simply will her way through. I wanted her to choose to not be depressed. I wanted her to choose not to be an addict.

Each time I uttered something like the above nonsense, I got a response to the effect of “You just don’t understand.” My statements were hogwash. This statement was truth. I did not understand. I need to admit that I still don’t fully understand. But my lack of understanding need not prevent me from behaving with compassion and companionship. I don’t need to fully understand in order to be a safe presence and an advocate.

The thing is: I keep falling back into my state of misunderstanding. I keep assuming when my loved one is unable to get out of bed for a day or is appearing unwilling to meet me out with friends that she is making a choice to do so. I keep assuming she could change her situation simply by choosing to do so. 

Depressed people are not choosing depression. Addicted people are not choosing addiction. Anxious people do not choose to feel anxiety.

Stigma is contributor to not getting help with mental health

They do choose how they respond to issues. And sometimes those choices can lead to harmful outcomes--like the addict who ignores the negative impact his addiction is having on family, or the depressed person who chooses to self-medicate her condition, thus compounding depression with addiction. (Note: ignoring the issue is not an actual choice.)

My issue, however, is that I often confuse the other person’s controllable behaviors with the deep issue that drives those behaviors. I defiantly assume that a person dealing with depression can will herself out of depression. I assume that a person wrestling with addiction can choose to ignore the impulses of that addiction by sheer force of will alone.

The situation is reminiscent of a thought recorded by the Apostle Paul. We see it in Romans 7:15: 

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.

Paul was talking about the impulses of his human nature. He wanted to do what was better, but defaulted to doing what was not good. Most of us can relate. We all find ourselves entertaining feelings or behaviors we would prefer not to entertain.

I think my first step in being a safe person living alongside those with mental health issues is to admit that there are parts of my own nature that urge me to do things that I don’t want to do. In that way, I am no different than someone who has a diagnosed condition. 

“I keep doing what I don’t want to do...” What many of us could use to understand is that this message is cycling through another’s head with such high frequency that it’s hard to get any other message through. It turns to a self-fulfilling prophecy. That repeating script often erodes a person’s feelings of self-worth. Then the repeated script turns from “I keep doing what I don’t want to do... “ to “I can’t do anything else,” and then to “I’m not worthy of anything better…” In the worst cases, it leads the person into believing that he or she is a burden to others, lost to all hope, and then ushers in suicidal thoughts. 

I’ve been unable to fully put myself into the shoes of someone dealing with a deep mental health issue. I don’t understand everything my loved one feels. Her experience is not my experience. But I think I can offer a different kind of understanding. While I can’t fully empathize, I can extend compassion and companionship.

15% of adult population depression statistic

For those of us who don’t understand, here’s what we can do:

  1. Acknowledge that there is a script of shame running through your loved one’s head. You don’t need to acknowledge that to them. But you do need to be wary of reinforcing that script of shame. So avoid making statements or offering bits of advice like those presented at the beginning of this article. Those are shame reinforcers because they are things your loved one is already attempting unsuccessfully to do. Your loved one does not want to be unhappy, so don’t insist that they do.
  2. Validate their experience. Part of their shame spiral is compounded by the fact that they feel like they have no reason to feel the way they do. Don’t dismiss the negative feelings. And don’t steamroll over those feelings by pointing out all the things they should be feeling good about. One possible way to validate is by asking “What can I do to be with you while you’re feeling depressed or anxious?”
  3. This is the big one: reinforce that your loved one is a good person with God-given value. It’s likely they’re struggling to feel that. I’ll admit that when my loved one is in a state of depression, my urge is to isolate her (that’s actually her urge, too). My big challenge in those instances is to show her that she is worthy of my attention. It doesn’t always feel like my attention is welcomed, and that is difficult for me, but the gesture supplied by my presence and concern communicates a sense of value. In cases of depression or anxiety, make an attempt to be with your loved one. In cases of addiction, make it clear that you do not define your loved one by their addiction and that you desperately want them to be well and whole. They are more than their addiction will ever allow them to be.

Offer to go with them. Outside help in the form of counseling and treatment is never a bad idea. The best way to urge that is by offering to go along. And let me reiterate: counseling and treatment are never a bad idea--for you or for your loved one.

If you’re feeling the negative weight of tough emotions right now, you may appreciate our 7-day emotional detox. It’s a series of seven email devotionals that help process through some of the toxic lies that draw us into consistent emotional negativity.


Ryan Dunn is a Minister of Online Engagement for United Methodist Communications. He lives in Nashville, TN, with his family. He is an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church.