By The Book of Man
Be more than a friend, be a coach, a counsellor, a consigliere for the mental health of your mates.
We are officially heading into a mental health storm as lockdown is eased and the personal and economic fallout becomes clear. There is a huge weight of responsibility on the government to provide support for people in financial and employment terms to alleviate the effects, but there are also measures each one of us can take to help the people around us. As a platform concentrated on male issues, our advice is mostly related to assisting male friends who have mental health problems, but they can apply to anyone, of any age. We know men, though, have particular difficulties in breaking through masculine expectations to seek help for issues, for a great variety of reasons, one being a fear what their peers will think of this. The power of being such a peer, then, is considerable, and if that power is used appropriately when it comes to mental health, interventions of the type laid out below can literally save lives.
Read up on mental health. Your friend may be suffering from a ‘psychotic’ mental health disorder or a ‘neurotic’ one. The former can be issues like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, the latter could be depression or anxiety. Neurotic disorders are more common, and often sparked by life problems such as job loss or relationship breakdowns, but the science is quite unclear as the lines between the two main categories can blur from person to person; you can suffer multiple disorders at the same time. It is important to be able to gauge whether the person you are trying to help needs professional help or simply a gathering around him of friends. It may well be both. But only by consistent monitoring as discussed further below will reveal the best course of action. Educate yourself about mental health on the Mental Health Foundation and CALM websites.
Create space to talk. This doesn’t have to be a formal sit down: a new exercise activity is ideal. A one-on-one pint is the classic, but it could just be a shared task: a hand with decorating, a trip to the tip or a garage clear-out. Something entirely mundane where you have to fill in time with chat. Use whatever you think will get you into that space. Softly, softly, catch ye monkey. If you can get the environment safe and easy, you can broach the subject you need to.
Understand this isn’t a one-time thing. A quick chat through the mental health problem will not solve it. In fact, forget about notions of solving it: there may not be a solution to the mental health problem. Instead, this is more about managing the issue, and any attempt to mentor someone through a mental health difficulty has to be long-term. Think of yourself like a coach helping an injured player back to fitness. You can’t simply turn up to one session as a coach, tell them what to do to get fit and then leave them to it. It’s about continual support, checking in, stretching the talking muscles, keeping the dialogue going. Not that your sessions themselves have to be intensive, either time-wise or emotionally, but they must be maintained. You could save the fella’s life. And when you fall in one of life’s inevitable holes, he’ll be there to save yours.
Listen. Sounds simple, but it isn’t. Engaged listening is a skill; paying attention to salient points, and circling back to whatever you think is pertinent. Close listening also helps to develop tact: when and when not to pursue a particular issue. In this manner, tact develops from regularly listening to a person talk, which takes us back to that sensibility of regular dialogue: the commitment to true friendship.
You can still have a laugh. You can make light of their situation, especially if you usually enjoy taking the piss out of each other. Laughter sometimes really is the best medicine. To an outsider it may seem like an offensive way to deal with a serious issue but within a friendship the blunt tool of a joke can burst open the doors to a genuine talk through laughter. It eases tension and shows that the listener to the problem is not some inhuman professional, but a mate, a friendly ear, someone receptive when no-one else is.
Bring in other people. The wider circle of your friends is crucial. Not all of you need to lay it on heavy but for a person in need, just having people calling you up and doing things with you – even gaming online – can make a world of difference. With depression in particular, a person may seek to self-isolate, to make no effort back, to shun company. The chances are, however, that if you can’t get through, one of your friends will be able to; maybe the dynamic is easier somehow depending on the nature of their specific relationship. It’s about finding what works. Being a mentor is not simply about saving someone yourself, it’s about uniting people around them.
Bring in your girlfriend. Often we hear that men prefer to open up to female friends than male friends. This may well flag up limitations in male friendships due to needless worries about appearing less of a man, which we are of course trying to tackle. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t stop you from exploring this possibility with the person in need: it may be that they would prefer to talk to your girlfriend or wife or mother or whoever it is, rather than you. Don’t underestimate the value of inviting the person over for a dinner at your place and letting them open up to someone who may have better skills in this regard, or who they don’t particularly know: it can sometimes be easier to talk if the person is a relative stranger and isn’t judging them against their past. Again, this is about them, not you, so try mixing it up. Humility can be a powerful thing and your greatest skill as a mentor.
Supply books, apps, films. Taking time to read can make a big difference to a person who is suffering. But so can bingeing on action films. This is where a friend can be truly helpful, a friend who knows whether it’s best to take round a copy of ‘The Idiot’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky or ‘Child’s Play 4: Bride of Chucky’. Fighting personal darkness doesn’t have to be a plunge into the depths, it can be a grasping for surface breaths.
Get them outdoors. Exercise is a known remedy for mental health problems and exercise outdoors can supercharge it. But any escape outdoors, even a walk or a pint in a beer garden, is a valuable thing, particularly now, when people have been locked inside for months and dealing with considerable anxiety about how to operate in the outside world. Take them into the light.
Take them away. Road trip! Without this turning into an excuse to party – where one man’s depression gives all his mates a chance to have a holiday – well, it can work. A love bomb by friends in a new setting. Often people apply this thinking to relationship break-ups, with the idea of getting back out into social environments to meet more people. But why can’t it apply to depression or similar conditions? A break away in a city or on a campsite or Vegas if you really must (though it’s shit, truly shit), wherever you choose it can provide that safe space, that escape, that bit of perspective which may be lacking in their life.
Create a WhatsApp group. The safe space can of course be digital now, and a separate WhatsApp group can work wonders, one separate to the main group you have with your mates. It may only feature 2 or 3 or you, but the parameters of it should be clearly marked out: it’s for mental health check-ins only. And you all do it. This means it’s not purely on the person with the issue; you’re all involved, all making yourself vulnerable. You can do so because you’ll have the agreement that in this group you are sincere and don’t take the piss. Elsewhere it can be business as usual, but here you are different, here you can open up in safety.
Open up yourself. This is the big one, the crucial step to help; because as a friend it really is a dialogue, a two-way street. Because most men hide their mental-health issues we all think we’re the only ones suffering from them. By showing your vulnerable side, your suffering, your pain, you can only encourage the same in the other. It takes brave men to do this, and now is the time.