I dislike geese. Intensely. They poop on the sidewalks and chase me if I get even remotely close to their nests. Geese are everywhere.
Angry geese scare me. They’re big, fast, and they bite. But no creature should be left to die alone in pain. So when I heard about a goose who was suffering in a library parking lot, its wing mangled by a dog, I immediately called my friend Jen.
Jen is an animal-in-need rescuer. She has unending compassion for hurting animals, even for an angry goose. She went to the library parking lot and, after an hour and a half of goose wrangling, she and a co-rescuer corralled the injured bird into a carrier and took it to a wildlife clinic.
Jen’s work with animals is a tangible example of active compassion. She doesn’t just talk about loving and caring about animals. She puts her love into action, even if it means chasing a frightened goose for an hour and a half and then getting goose poop in her car.
There are some instances where feeling compassionate is common and easy. We feel compassionate when we see images of starving children on the other side of the world. We feel compassionate when we hear about people who perished in a plane crash. These people’s needs and their struggles are clear, and it is easy to feel sympathy for them. There is no judgment, secrecy, or shame. But it is less common to notice and care about those with mental health conditions.
Mental health issues are often wrongly shrouded in shame and embarrassment. People hide what is happening inside of them. The very thing that seeks understanding and treatment is also the one that hides under the mask of fear.
People hide what is happening inside of them. The very thing that seeks understanding and treatment is also the one that hides under the mask of fear.
People with depression may put on a happy face when others are around, crying only when they are alone. Your friend with anxiety may express convincing reasons why they can’t attend your housewarming party. If someone has bipolar, they may get through the days and weeks of severe mood changes by laughing it off as having a great day and being enthusiastic rather than being manic or depressed. People who have eating disorders can hide their binging and purging and starving in myriad ways.
Individuals who have mental health issues should not feel the need to hide their struggles. The people who are in their lives—spouses, friends, family members, teachers, coaches, and other caring people—can make a difference by helping. But it can be difficult to know where to start.
There are three steps to taking compassion from a cerebral notion to a real and tangible action. Time and time again, I have witnessed them take place when someone helps someone (or something) else.
- Be aware. If you see signs that someone may be wrestling with a mental health issue, pay attention. You may notice behaviors that are different or out of the ordinary. You may even just have a gut feeling. Don’t ignore it.
- Be kind. When you become concerned about someone, treat that person with respect and dignity. Don’t patronize them or lecture them on what they need to do. Listen and show you care.
- Be bold. Take action, whether this means getting an injured goose help or telling someone you’re worried they seem sad or depressed. Ask if they need anything. Don’t ignore the issue and pretend everything is okay.
We often shy away from asking personal questions of others when we see signs of distress, but the potential benefit of asking someone how they’re truly and honestly doing outweighs the potential consequences.
When you say to someone, “I care about you and I’m worried,” it can be powerful. The worst that can happen is you’re told to mind your own business. The best that can happen is you save a life. There are people who have been on the verge of suicide who didn’t go through with it because one person asked if they were okay or told them they cared. You may be that person someday.
So be aware, be kind, and be bold. You may be surprised at how one small action can forever change a person, who may go on to help another person, who helps yet another.
© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jenise Harmon, LISW-S, therapist in Columbus, Ohio
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