I remember being fascinated by mental health 15 years ago. I was in sixth form and I became a peer counsellor to offer support to younger students in the school. Then mental health was something no one wanted to talk about, or took seriously.
Fast forward 15 years, and now mental health has captured the attention of people who once didn’t understand or want to understand. Nowadays everyone talks about "mental health matters" and "let’s reduce suicides". However, people are not willing to change their behaviours to help reduce mental health cases. We are currently using the mentality of changing our behaviours to support people going through a difficult time, instead of changing our behaviours to prevent people from experiencing dark thoughts in the first place.
So I want to share three small things we can all do from today, to begin shifting our behaviour to reduce mental health issues in people around us.
"Drawing Banter Lines" – I love a bit of banter, who doesn’t? Some of the most fun memories I share with friends and family are based on jokes and laugher, sometimes to the extent I laughed so much I got a stomach ache. However, banter isn’t always harmless – especially when you attack someone’s physical or mental weaknesses.
"You’re fat, you’re dark, you’re short, you’re so gay, you’re stupid, you have a big nose." It might be funny to you, they might even laugh along with you, but is that "joke" the first time they’ve heard it?
When a comment is repeated again and again it slowly chips away at their self-confidence. There is a strong correlation between having low self-esteem and mental health issues. I have seen people attempt to say they were upset or offended by someone’s joke only to be met by "you need to toughen up" or "it’s only banter, can’t you take it?".
The person making the joke doesn’t get to decide another person’s boundaries, and that’s not in our power. What is in our power is to understand the banter has caused pain, learn the person’s boundaries and respect them. If your only way of being funny is by insulting someone, then I suggest you leave the jokes to the comedians and focus on other ways of building a better relationship with your friend.
From today – start asking your friends what their boundaries are and understand them. Let them determine what is funny and what isn’t. Give them the power to tell you when you overstep the mark and to hold you to account.
This leads me to my second point nicely.
Understanding Experiences – Often in banter, when you ignore a person’s right to be upset by the joke, you’re ignoring their experience and making it about you. We often do this when people share their life experiences too. Even when you mean well, you can be dismissive of their experiences by talking about other people who went through something similar. "My friend Jonty had depression and he did yoga to help," or "I had depression and I didn’t behave that way." People are different. Their lives, situations and circumstances are all different. So instead of trying to pick flaws in their behaviour, learn more about them as an individual. It’s not a one glove fits all.
You may mean well, but there are over 7 billion people on this planet. Learn what makes them different, and how their experience has affected them.
Be patient. Listen and ask questions to try and understand. Accept their reality, without telling them they’re wrong. You don’t walk in their shoes.
Through listening you can understand the person better. It’s however, also important to understand the world so you can better understand experiences.
Learning – disabilities, illnesses, racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination, poverty are just some examples of reasons people may experience mental health issues. It’s essential we arm ourselves with information around these topics, so we can better help people who live different lives to us. Instead of dismissing racism as a problem "because it doesn’t happen to me" or "I’ve never seen it" learn about the history and reality of it learn how you may be holding up systems of inequalities and how you can help break down these barriers.
Start reading books or watching documentaries which tell you about alternate realities people face. Talk to people who have a different life to you and learn about their lives.
People always say "be kind" but what does "being kind" mean? To me being kind is showing love, understanding and respect to others and the three tips above are small steps we can start taking today to a more loving, respectful and understanding world.