Tuesday, January 31, 2023

(Note: This piece contains loose references to those who have died by suicide as related to mental health struggles.)

We have all heard the quote, something along the lines of “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” or “... everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” We hear these statements—whose origins are debated—and see them posted on social media repeatedly, especially when there is news of a tragedy striking.

There is often a feeling of shock when we hear about someone we know, or have seen on the screen, who, we learn, has or is struggling with a mental health diagnosis. “But they look so happy!” We think of Robin Williams or dancer/producer Stephen (“tWitch”) Boss and look at photos, videos or interviews, wondering about how this individual could have sat with so much pain while also bringing so much joy to others. And then at other times we think of individuals we knew were suffering, and perhaps felt feelings of hopelessness or continue to wonder what we can do.

What can we do?

I’ve written previously about how mental health feels, at times, like a “hot button” expression. It’s thrown around almost without meaning, much like “self-care.” So many of us are no longer attached to our relationships with ourselves and our emotions; we feel intensely or not at all—typically existing in an all-or-nothing state. We may deprive ourselves of our needs, engage in perfectionism, have difficulty coping, feel anxiety or stress.

We resort to maladaptive ways of coping, to manage the feelings—the ginormous feelings—that may leave us feeling lost or isolated. So many of us have been impacted by changes in recent years including ongoing emphasis on status in the world of social media; judgment based on appearance and accomplishments; the need to “rise to the top”; or self-worth relating to accolades.

Trying to find ourselves, to be ourselves, is hard. There is a pressure to rise up to expectations—whether internal or from others—and likely what we need is that kindness and compassion. We need to experience less judgment. We need to feel the support of those around us—especially those close to us. Not simply when the struggle becomes apparent in the form of a diagnosis. Not only when tragedy strikes and there is a reminder of this need. Rather, we need to know that love and support exist at all times.

What does this look like, practically? Are we meant to walk around constantly never feeling any anger or frustration because instead we are striving to achieve only that kindness? No. We are human beings with complex emotions and we feel how we feel. A friend cancels plans last minute? It’s OK to feel annoyed. And, we can also pause and be curious about the person’s situation. We can communicate our feelings and set expectations and boundaries, even if we know that there is a struggle going on. It’s all about the way that we do so.

Instead of responding to that friend with passive aggressiveness, ignoring the person, or trying to seek revenge, we can focus on expressing ourselves, stating our needs, and also creating a space for support. “I cleared my schedule for our plans and felt frustrated that you canceled. This being said, I know that happens and next time maybe you can try to tell me sooner rather than later if you can’t make it. Is everything OK?” Scripted? Maybe. Better than the alternative? I believe so.

We can set boundaries and indicate our needs all while having compassion and acting with curiosity and kindness. And this is how we hold onto that mindset of remembering that truly we know nothing about the battles others may be fighting. We create a space for open communication and we also stop joking about the struggle; we can stop making light of the various struggles that exist, whether it be about body image, substances, gambling, self-injury and so much more. It can feel overwhelming to keep track of just how many struggles there are, whether emotional such as anxiety or mood disorders, or struggles that may include some type of behavior. Now think of how incredibly challenging it must be to be suffering with these struggles.

Let’s not wait until the next time you are flabbergasted, hearing about someone’s struggle who you had assumed was living without a care. Start now and hold onto this reality of mental health. We may hold the door for the person behind us on crutches, seeing if they need help, taking an extra moment. But my hope is that we hold that door for anyone, because it is the kind action to take. So too, do not wait for evidence of someone’s struggle to act in this way. Start now.

Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works with individuals ages 18 and older in New York and New Jersey who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Temimah is an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness and a Metro-New York supervisor at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, visit www.temimah.com.

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