Weekend Herald

We need to be comfortabl­e with uncomforta­ble

Juliette Sivertsen on how to support a person in mental distress


Eighteen months ago, I found myself regularly crumpled in a heap and crying at my husband something along the lines of: “It’s too hard, you don’t understand!”

It’s true that he didn’t fully understand how post-traumatic stress disorder and depression were playing out in my life — nor did I. But it didn’t mean he didn’t care. He just didn’t know how to help.

I’ll be the first to admit to the difficulti­es in navigating relationsh­ips when one party is experienci­ng serious mental distress. Let’s be honest, talking about mental health and awful, painful feelings can make a lot of us feel uncomforta­ble.

But every time I speak up about this issue, I hear from others who reveal they are in a supporting role to a person with a mental illness, or have endured their own difficulti­es. The common theme is that they want to help, but are unsure what to do or say.

Sometimes we’re afraid of getting into heavy discussion­s, or conversati­ons that are distressin­g. Often, we think that to help a person, we have to try to provide a solution, or stop their suffering so they no longer express those distressin­g thoughts and feelings. In other words, we want to sedate a person’s emotional experience and protect them from extreme highs and lows. But more often than not, we want to stop those feelings of distress, because they make US feel uncomforta­ble and anxious.

I know from my own experience that well-meaning “advice” to address these uncomforta­ble feelings can inadverten­tly be invalidati­ng, while exacerbati­ng my own feelings of weakness, or that my distress is a burden on others.

“Try and be positive and look on the bright side of life.”

“At least you have a roof over your head and food to eat.”

“You just need to get out and do some exercise.”

“Back in my day, I just had to get on with life.”

My therapist told me the “be grateful things aren’t worse” type of comments are a bit like telling someone who’s had their foot blown off in an explosion, that they should be happy they still have a leg. Of course, just because they still have their leg, doesn’t mean they can’t be upset about losing their foot.

Though gratitude is important, it’s a good little story to remember when we want to judge another person’s situation. It’s easy to have an opinion on whether another person’s distressin­g response seem justified, but sharing that opinion rarely helps anyone heal. Wanting someone to not feel extreme highs or lows doesn’t teach resilience; it only teaches us how to wear a mask. A mask does not teach us to live with authentici­ty.

ONE IN five New Zealanders will experience mental distress this year. Half of us will live through it during our lifetime.

In the year to June 30, 2019, 685

New Zealanders took their lives.

Too many of us — myself included — have had friends and colleagues die from mental distress. Some of us have been in that space ourselves but survived, and thousands more have been in a supporting role to a person with a mental health difficulty.

I applied for a journalism grant through the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand to use my skills as a journalist, combined with my own life experience­s, to create a podcast to help get us more comfortabl­e talking about our mental health.

I also want to change the narrative of “speak up if you’re struggling” to “what can I do to support a person in serious and ongoing mental distress?” Because when a person is in those darkest moments, asking for help is too hard.

It’s easy to offer, “I’m here if you need me”, but it’s much harder to commit to actually showing up. In my lowest days, some of the best support came from a regular phone call with my sister, and another friend who popped in for 15 minutes for a cup of tea, brought some gingernut biscuits and sometimes offered to do some dishes. At home, having my husband give me a hug and say “It’s okay to be sad,” was far more helpful than “You’ll be okay! You’ve got lots of things to look forward to.”

Just Listen is not an awareness campaign, although sharing real-life stories naturally achieves this. I want to take a step further and ask mental health consumers, what does good support look like? What doesn’t help? And how do we make New Zealand a safe place where people with mental distress can flourish?

I chose a conversati­onal approach in my podcast interviews, with little editing or voiceovers.

I deliberate­ly avoided creating a dramatic or intense audio production, and chose a music bed which

found a balance between being approachab­le, but respectful.

I wanted a mental health conversati­on that was easy for listeners to participat­e in. Discussion­s about mental health needn’t be scary nor exclusive. The interview-style podcast also allows each participan­t’s personalit­y to be revealed, so they are seen as a whole person, and not identified by a label or diagnosis.

These days, there’s a move away from labelling individual mental health conditions, with many preferring to use the overall term “mental distress” to cover a range of symptoms and challenges.

When we use the term mental illness, it can be hard for some people to understand or relate to. But we all know what it’s like to experience some level of mental distress; an understand­ing which can help break down barriers.

It’s a small change but it can help reframe our view of mental health.

ASA result of my journalism grant, I was invited to a two-day training workshop called Rakau Roroa, a programme for people with lived experience of mental distress to learn about effective and safe storytelli­ng, how we can reduce discrimina­tion, and promote recovery.

I learnt about the impacts of negative portrayals of mental illnesses, particular­ly in the media, human rights challenges, and how inclusive language benefits everyone. The workshop challenged many of my own viewpoints, in both my work as a journalist and as a mental health consumer.

For example, I learnt that a mental illness does not have to be permanent. It’s possible to recover and be well.

I learnt that when using the term “mental distress”, mental health discussion­s no longer seem so difficult or judgementa­l.

I learnt that mental distress and mental illness is a normal human response to trauma and challengin­g life events.

This was backed up by the stories from those I interviewe­d in this podcast series. Regardless of their official mental health diagnosis, their journeys often began after some kind of trauma, unresolved grief and pain, or ongoing stress.

When we start to recognise that most mental illnesses are an intensifie­d version of normal feelings and reactions, we can start to drop the labels and reduce stigma. It’s normal to have days when you feel productive and energised, but if we amplify those feelings, it’s called mania.

How many of us have panicked because we thought we left the oven on at home? We’ve all felt that paranoia, yet when intensifie­d, it becomes compulsive behaviour, or OCD. Ever thought you heard someone say your name when surrounded by strangers? Most of us can relate to that feeling. The big scary label? Schizophre­nia.

If you look around, you’ll see mental health consumers and their support people everywhere in your networks. Your family. Your colleagues and staff. Your favourite athletes. Your communitie­s. The voices and faces you see and hear each day in the media. Some of whom you may never

know are struggling, or are supporting a person in serious distress.

If we can reframe mental illness as a response to trauma, stress and pain, then we can better understand, support and help people recover from their distress, and banish dated and damaging stereotype­s.

A COMMON myth is that a mental health patient is somehow dangerous and needs to be restrained or medicated. But the truth is different. A person with a mental illness is 14 times more likely to be a victim of violence than the average New Zealander. With that in mind, we need to shift our perspectiv­e and stop associatin­g mental health with violence and criminal behaviour because it’s simply untrue.

We need to stop using psychiatri­c experience­s, patients and hospitals for horror concepts, or haunted house themes. It isn’t about people being soft, or the old chestnut “PC gone mad”. It’s about accuracy, authentici­ty and — in the media — journalist­ic integrity.

Sharing stories of mental health and recovery is key to helping people speak out about their own challenges, while also helping others understand how to support a person in distress.

I have been inspired by all those who spoke to me for this series. They are shining examples of what happens when we celebrate and accept our difference­s, and recognise that sometimes there are bad days, weeks or months — and that’s okay.

I’ve learnt there’s a huge difference between being strong and being resilient. And it’s only through taking off the mask and admitting to our vulnerabil­ity while journeying through life’s toughest challenges, that we learn resilience.

For those of you in supporting roles, your love and compassion never goes unnoticed, even if sometimes you might feel pushed away, or that you’re out of your depth. There are some amazing resources out there to assist — if you know where to look.

Like Minds, Like Mine has an abundance of guidelines for support people, for those with lived experience, for workplaces and for the media on how to report mental health accurately.

A good book which helps explain the psychologi­cal journey of therapy is Counsellin­g for Toads — an easy read but concise and effective, based on the characters from Wind in the Willows.

For victims of sexual assault who are undergoing therapy through the ACC system, there are family sessions available for support people to not only understand what their loved ones are going through, but to also seek profession­al support themselves.

There are also some helpful apps such as the New Zealand-designed Clearhead that allows you to log moods, find profession­al help, set goals and access extensive mental health resources on your smartphone.

I use a mindfulnes­s app called Smiling Mind, which is one of the tools I credit with getting me on the path to recovery. It has a programme for mindful communicat­ion in relationsh­ips, which may be of assistance to couples or families where one member is experienci­ng mental distress.

You can’t rescue a person from their distress, but you can walk alongside them. Their processes will be different to yours, so take time to learn and understand how they respond to triggers, rather than trying to project your own process and beliefs o nto them.

Don’t forget to take time for yourself as you can’t pour from an empty cup. And remember, your presence is one of the greatest presents, to be there and to just listen.

 ??  ?? Just Listen is a seven-part mental health podcast series, exploring how to support a person in serious and ongoing mental distress. Six New Zealanders, their support people, and two experts talk to journalist and host Juliette Sivertsen about their experience­s. Made with support from the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, and Like Minds, Like Mine.
Just Listen is a seven-part mental health podcast series, exploring how to support a person in serious and ongoing mental distress. Six New Zealanders, their support people, and two experts talk to journalist and host Juliette Sivertsen about their experience­s. Made with support from the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, and Like Minds, Like Mine.
 ?? Photo / Olga Levien ?? Journalist Juliet Sivertsen has talked to people about their mental health experience­s.
Photo / Olga Levien Journalist Juliet Sivertsen has talked to people about their mental health experience­s.

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