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The Art of Accompaniment: Becoming a Mental Health Ally

In her toddler years, my oldest kiddo tended to catch every cold that was making the rounds. And no matter whether we took her to the doctor 2 days after the cold started to 10 days after the cold started, that cold almost always turned into pneumonia.

After 3 or 4 winters of this, with major mom guilt weighing me down, I confessed to her pediatrician, “Doc. I feel in over my head with just day-to-day mom stuff. And no matter when I bring her in, she’s always so sick. I feel like I’m failing. How am I supposed to know what to do?”

And he kindly replied:

“Are you a doctor?”

“No,” I said.

“Then you aren’t supposed to know what to do. The only thing you’re responsible for is getting her help once you realize she needs it.”

Just as I was not supposed to know how to “fix” things when my kiddo was sick. You are not supposed to know how to “fix” things for someone who is living with barriers to their mental wellness. However, as a loved one/friend/responsible community member, you are encouraged to support those around you who live with mental health concerns. One such way is by being a Mental Health Ally. 

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s observed every year and remains a time where those who suffer from mental illness can be reminded of the support available to them and feel a little less alone in their struggles. It’s also a time for mental health allies to recommit, or commit for the first time, to help those struggling with mental health issues.

It is important that family, friends, and influential people in the community build their knowledge about mental health issues and understand how to act. Because your response could decide if people get the support and treatment they deserve.

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Becoming a Mental Health Ally

How to spot someone who could benefit from counseling:

Therapy isn’t just for people who have a diagnosed mental illness. Therapy can be hugely beneficial for anyone dealing with common life challenges such as:

  • Stress
  • Worry or anxiety or compulsions
  • Losing someone or something important (death, divorce, a job)
  • Relationship issues with spouse or family or at work
  • Addiction
  • Depression (this will look like isolation, not doing things they typically enjoy, not keeping up with basic care of themselves or their home)
  • Physical illness: think… chronic pain, life-altering injury, cancer; or the caregivers/support persons of people with physical illness

The varying degrees of mental health affect:

  • How we think, feel, and act.
  • And determine how we
    • handle stress,
    • relate to others,
    • make choices,
    • and perceive the world around us. 

In the mental health profession, we recognize a need for counseling when people begin experiencing distress in these areas, and when their strategies to cope become ineffective.

Therapy could help when:

  1. You’re having difficulty regulating your emotions. All emotions are healthy, but it’s important to pay attention to how often or how intensely you feel these emotions, especially if they are undesirable or uncontrollable. 
  2. You aren’t performing as effectively at work or school. Mental health struggles can impair attention, concentration, memory, and energy, which in turn can cause issues at work or school.
  3. You’re experiencing changes or disruptions in sleep or appetite. If you notice that you’ve been eating or sleeping either less or more than usual for an extended period, it might be time to hit the pause button and seriously assess the situation. 
  4. You’re struggling to build and maintain relationships.  If you often find yourself in conflict with others or have trouble communicating your feelings to others, therapy can help. 
  5. You’ve experienced trauma. Those who have a history of abuse or some other trauma that they haven’t fully recovered from can hugely benefit from talk therapy. 
  6. An unexpected change has upended your life. Whether it’s a divorce, significant breakup, unexpected changes (ex. Relocation or change of jobs), or loss of a loved one, this can lead to grief, and overcoming it can be a long and painful process, especially if you don’t have anyone to share that emotional burden with.
  7. You want to improve yourself but don’t know where to start. Perhaps you need a place to practice being more assertive, more social, more vulnerable, more something.

Your response to people’s needs can make a drastic difference in how quickly… if at all… someone connects with the counseling they need.

If you feel called to it, respond with SAD:

  • Start the conversation:
    A simple question like, “I noticed you’ve been having a hard time lately; what can I do to help?” can create a safe space for someone to talk about their problem and removes the barrier of them having to start the conversation themselves.
  • Attend:
    Listen more and talk less. Listen WITHOUT judgment and WITH empathy.  
  • Direct:
    Then point them in the direction of appropriate help: a priest they are connected with and/or mental health professional. Or consult with your advisors or a mental health professional.

How to talk to someone about getting counseling:

  • Try as much as possible to keep the conversation private, friendly and relaxed.
  • Find a moment when the individual is calm and ask permission to offer some advice.
  • Express your concern and remind them of the ways you care about them. Share specific examples from their life to illustrate why therapy might help
  • Avoid talking to someone when they are in a bad mood, tired, have tight deadlines at work or if they’re doing something important.
  • Talking to someone about mental health requires emotional sensitivity as well as physical sensitivity. The “where” and “how” the topic is presented may determine how a person reacts to your suggestions.
  • Don’t start this delicate conversation in front of other people or where others can hear as this may cause discomfort.

How to access CCCNMO Counseling Services:

Answers to common mental health counseling questions can be found on our FAQ here: Individual Counseling | Catholic Charities (diojeffcity.org)

All clients are eligible for a free mental health consultation. This is an opportunity to discuss the concerns they might want counseling for and to ask questions about our services. They are under no obligation to schedule any additional follow-up after their consultation. Clients are encouraged to use our online scheduling tool to arrange their consultation: Schedule Appointment | Catholic Charities (diojeffcity.org)