It’s a lesson that those working in technology and mental healthcare learn again and again: Tools are valuable, but they’re no substitute for people.
When someone is struggling with their mental health, they often turn first to tools they can access themselves. Safe social networking apps like Mappen do get users to spend more time offline, which might help people at risk of depression or suicide, but few people want to discuss their mental health issues in social settings.
Although most people don’t want to discuss the topic where they work, either, the workplace tends to be where facades of mental fitness break down. Why? Because all but 6 percent of U.S. and U.K. workers say they suffer from stress, with a third of them citing “high” or “unsustainably high” levels of stress.
Unlike other areas of life, the workplace isn’t one where stress can simply be avoided. Client work must get done. Difficult team members aren’t going anywhere. Empathetic co-workers can, however, ease the burden.
Do’s and Don’ts of Mental Health Help
1. Do: Be a confidant.
When Glamour studied the subject, it found that just 14 percent of the women it surveyed said they’d speak to someone at work if they experienced anxiety or depression. Although the lifestyle magazine didn’t ask men the same question, it’s fair to assume that they’d be similarly or less willing to share such information.
In other words, if a colleague confides in you that she isn’t in a good mental place, she’s broken quite the workplace norm. Don’t push her to give you every detail, but do respect the trust she’s placed in you. Listen thoughtfully, and keep the conversation close to your chest. If your co-worker wants others to know what they’ve told you, let her tell those individuals themselves.
2. Do: Provide social support.
Whether it’s a cause or merely an unpleasant symptom isn’t clear, but loneliness is associated with mental health disorders ranging from depression to social anxiety to addiction to hoarding. Believe it or not, lonely people tend to have even stronger social skills than their peers; they simply lack the confidence to put themselves in social situations.
Even if your colleague is using an app like Mappen, invite him to social gatherings whenever possible. Give him practice meeting new people by introducing him to your non-work connections. Encourage him to find like-minded people himself by joining a nearby interest or advocacy group.
3. Don’t: Keep serious issues to yourself.
If a co-worker confides in you that she’s going through some seasonal depression or experiencing occasional panic attacks, she probably isn’t in danger of harming herself or others. But if she describes a debilitating disorder or thoughts of suicide, know that it’s time to turn to a medical professional.
Fortunately, there are plenty of mental health resources available. If an immediate intervention is needed, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is staffed 24/7 by trained crisis workers. To find treatment services in your area, use the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s behavioral health treatment services locator.
4. Don’t: Put yourself at risk.
When someone is struggling with their own mental health, he may accidentally or intentionally drag others into the same boat. A substance abuser, for instance, may try to get others to partake in illegal drug use. Someone who has depression may throw a wrench in social plans to avoid missing out on the fun others are having.
Although the answer isn’t to judge or criticize the person who’s struggling, it’s also not to enable him. Politely refuse any illicit substances. Explain that you want to attend social gatherings, whether or not your co-worker does. Especially if it would put your own relationships at risk, refuse to confront or lobby others on the colleague’s behalf.
If your co-worker is going through mental health issues, know that you’re in a unique and delicate position. You’re probably not a mental health professional, but you may be the first to spot their stress-induced symptoms. Don’t ignore the signs. Be a friend, but know that neither you nor they have to go it alone.