How can we help academic colleagues to stay healthy? Experience & ideas

Recently, I wrote about mental health in academia. I said that we need to talk about mental health, and our struggles with it, so we can end the stigma. I talked about my personal experiences with mental health and insisted that if you are struggling, you need to look for help, be it with a friend or a health professional. Kathy McKay also wrote about how she found out how not to be an academic. It affected her health, leading her to look for help and change her lifestyle. In both posts, we described how we looked for help, who and what helped, and what we changed to give ourselves a better quality of life and stay healthy.

But if you know someone who is struggling with their mental health, how can you help them? How can you help your colleague who is depressed?

What is the better thing to do or to say to that friend who is dealing with anxiety attacks?

In this post, Kathy and I talk about what we have done when someone has asked us for help, and what would have helped us.

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Luana

 Recently, I saw this post where a woman sent an email to her colleagues saying she was out of the office for a couple of days to take care of her mental health. And, surprisingly, her boss answered in a very positive way saying that talking about these issues openly can help end the stigma around mental illness. This woman’s courage to use her sick days to take care of her mental health, and her boss’ answer, started a conversation about whether we should use our sick days to take care of our mental health. I say yes. Our brain is an organ and, like any other organ, it needs care. Our emotions are strictly connected to our mind and, therefore, we can’t properly function unless we are mentally and physically healthy.

In my opinion, based on my own personal experiences, the best thing we can do to help a friend who has depression – or any other kind of struggle with mental health – is to not diminish their problem. If someone tells you, “I don’t have energy for that” or “I am exhausted, I can’t do it anymore”, believe them.

Validate our feelings. Our symptoms are real.

Use well-meaning to foster well-being

We all have the best intentions inside our hearts when we give people advice. We try to tell our friends what we think would be good for them, but we don’t always know what might be the best for others. In fact, we never know. The best thing I heard when I was at my lowest was: What can I do to help you? How can I help you? These words were comforting because I knew the person was there to help me in any way I wanted. Most of the time, surprisingly, the best help was just to be there. To listen to me with no judgement. I felt understood and validated – and then I knew I wasn’t alone.

For example, if your lab mate is struggling with depression, ask them how you can help them to get through the day: How can I help you get through today? How can I help make you feel better? Maybe you can help them process their data, or with writing, or sometimes simply taking them out to lunch. When my mind was blurry, doubting of my own capacities, someone bringing me a new solution – or just saying “I will help you figure this out, or write this email” -was like a breath of fresh air.

I remember when it was hard to get out of the bed in the morning to go to the lab during the years of my PhD. Then, my dear friend offered me a ride to work.  Just knowing I didn’t need to endure the public transportation that morning was something small but so important to me – it was already easier to get ready for work in the morning. My lab mates were also essential support in helping me to manage my time so that I had the space I needed to deal with my mental health. They offered the kind of unconditional friendship that it’s hard to appreciate properly at the time, but in retrospect, I know its true value.

Kathy

 I agree with everything Luana has said, and offer two more points.

1. This is not about what you think, but what the other person needs.

It can be really confronting when someone who is in a crisis asks you for help. And, sometimes, the easiest way to respond – the most natural way to respond – is to want to solve their crisis.

If I do ‘x’ and say ‘y’, then everything will be wonderful.

Except it’s often not that easy. It’s rarely ever that easy.

So you need to take a step back, and simply listen to what that person is saying to you. Solutions that work for you may not be relevant to the person you’re speaking with. So ask them about their experiences first. Think about what is appropriate for them.

Are they telling you something that requires immediate action, like helping them connect to counselling? Or are they telling you something that simply requires a safe space and a person willing to listen?

Solutions can be small things

The absolute worst thing to say to me back then was “you know, what you really need is a holiday”. I knew that. But as a casual, not taking a holiday wasn’t about making a choice, it simply wasn’t available. For all the good intention in the world, that solution was useless.

And honestly, support is rarely ever about grand gestures. It is all the small kindnesses that add up. A holiday is a grand gesture in a way, but it also wouldn’t have helped in the long-term. I needed support in finding a healthy way to work, a way to balance things, without falling back into those ways of working that had made me sick in the first place.

So, acknowledge that there may not be a beautiful solution tied with a bow to offer them. Acknowledge that your small kindness can be the most supportive thing right now.

Sometimes the only thing you may be able to offer is a safe space for them to talk over a cup of tea. And sometimes that may be exactly what is needed.

2. You cannot care for someone if you don’t care for you first.

Are you the person people turn to when they need advice? There is a saying among my friends who work in mental health that you are never just caring for one person, you are always caring for a village.

Sometimes the person who is supporting one person, is the one supporting everyone else.

Often that person is the best one for the job, but who cares for them?

Supporting someone can be confronting and, as important though it is, it can be hard emotional labour. Even when everything turns out well in the end, you can end up feeling exhausted and a little bit empty yourself.

Stay healthy yourself

So, you need to have a self-care regime in place. This may mean:

  • Finding someone of your own to talk through what has happened.
  • Knowing the things that really help you unwind and de-stress. For me, it is running in the park, cuddling with my cat, and watching astonishingly bad TV. Find what works for you, embrace it, and give no apologies for what it includes.
  • Learning to be OK with the uncertainties of these situations. You can only do so much, and the rest is out of your hands, whether they are other healthcare professionals or the person themselves. You need to be OK with letting go.

At the end of the day, this post is not about giving solutions but rather helping you find ways to feel comfortable in helping someone. Being a safe person to talk to does more to dismantle stigma than anything else sometimes. Just look at the discussion created by the boss in the article Luana mentioned at the beginning.

We hope that you have found our blog post helpful. Take care of yourself and each other!

Featured image: CC0 on Pixabay

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