May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I appreciate the recognition of what is for me, and millions of others around the world, a life-long struggle. I also know that one month of attention is woefully insufficient for an insidious condition that can make basic existence feel impossible. Our pay-per-click culture privileges snappy headlines and top-ten lists promising easy ways to recover from or support those grappling with the darkness. The stark truth is that there is nothing easy about depression, anxiety, or any of the other conditions listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, now in its fifth edition.
In his achingly beautiful documentary, The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Stephen Fry unflinching described his experience, explaining the difficulty in supporting another person through depression. Acknowledging that it can feel frustrating and, at times, pointless, he said that loving another person through their depression is one of the greatest things one person can do for another. He’s right. People in the throes of a major depressive episode are, in my experience of having been one, awful. Fry talks about the two paradoxical fallacies people in a depression believe, that it is not raining (when, in fact, it is) and, because it is raining, the sun will never come out again. There is so much truth in those two contradictory beliefs that it hurts.
Supporting someone through a depression also requires the ability to hold two seemingly opposing thoughts in tension. The first is that the depressed person’s feelings are real and valid. It does not matter whether you, as a mentally healthy person, believe that their fears or anxieties are warranted. Your conviction does not make the experience of those emotions any less real for the person experiencing them and telling another person that how they feel is wrong because it does not comport with your perspective is unhelpful and, potentially, dangerous. At the same time as you acknowledge that the other person’s point of view is their authentic lived experience, you can also offer hope and affirmation. What does that look like? It can take many forms, among them are telling the other person that you believe in their ability to persevere through difficult circumstances and listening to them without judgment and without offering solutions for which you are not asked.
Although there are no easy solutions, there is a simple answer: be present and be authentic.