People who don’t struggle with depression can sometimes feel at a loss for how to help loved ones who do.

If you’ve never fallen into a mental hole you couldn't climb out of, it’s hard to understand how depression can be so debilitating. And when you're peering down at a loved one at the bottom of that hole, it’s hard to know how to help them out.

You can try to coach them on how to climb, but you don't understand how slippery the walls are. You can try to offer them a rope, but you don't realize that their muscles are too spent to grab it and hold on.


How do you help someone who is stuck?

While there are no universal right answers, this story demonstrates just one powerful way these friends showed up for their struggling pal.

Sheila O’Malley spiraled into a deep depression the year her dad died. She had moved into a new apartment but found herself unable to unpack for months. She felt ashamed at her inability to do something so straightforward, but depression does that — it makes basic things feel insurmountable, then makes you feel bad about not surmounting them.

O'Malley shared on Twitter that her friend David checked in with her and offered words of support. But he knew she needed more than that. So he did something bold.

He contacted a bunch of O'Malley's friends and organized an unpacking party — unbeknownst to her.

Ten friends showed up, food in hand, and ignored her protesting that her apartment wasn't ready for visitors.

"They unpacked my boxes. They put away my 1,500 books. They hung pictures for me ... By the end of the night, my apartment was all set up," O'Malley wrote.

Sometimes showing up for a friend means simply doing what needs to be done without fuss or fanfare.

O'Malley explained that she had been unable to do even the simplest things. But her friends didn't judge. "They were like superheroes sweeping in," she said. They showed up ready to do what needed to be done. And they didn't let her get in the way of that important work.

"I was overwhelmed at the sight of all of my friends turning themselves into Santa's workshop," O'Malley wrote. "On my behalf. With out asking me. They just showed up and barged in. I was embarrassed for like 10 minutes but they were all so practical and bossy I had no choice but to let that go."

"Listen, baby, what we did today was a barn-raising."

This is what a supportive community looks like.

That's what it was — a beautiful modern version of a community coming together to serve the needs of one of its own. A group easing the burden of an individual. A line of friends forming a human chain to grab hold of the friend at the bottom of a hole and attempt to pull her up.

By providing practical help, her friends also provided emotional support.

Many people who are struggling with depression won't ask for help because they're ashamed. Often they won't accept help even if it's offered sincerely, because they feel unworthy. But O'Malley's friends showed up anyway. And by showing up physically, they supported her emotionally — not by taking away her grief, but by removing some of the practical burdens that made it harder to manage emotionally.

O'Malley pointed out that it could have gone another way. She could have felt offended or hurt. But even if she had, she'd have known her friends cared about her enough to rally together and let her know she wasn't alone.

"These are the kinds of friends I have," she wrote. "Be that kind of friend to others."

An excellent reminder to us all of what love in action can look like.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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