Everyone’s mental health is different. No two people experience their environment in the same way, and so the pressures and difficulties we face at LSE are as diverse as the student body itself. This blog is an exploration of how people from all walks of life approach and understand their mental wellbeing, be it with diagnosable conditions or just dealing with the pressures of university life.
Having discussed the difficulty of opening up about mental health in last week’s blog, this week we turn to the other side of the coin: how hard it can be to help others. This isn’t an obvious topic – being supportive and caring comes naturally to most of us, and we can often feel like bad people for acknowledging the emotional strain that supporting others can have. But this is a mistake. As this week’s interviewee articulates, receiving proper and legitimate support is important, and having to give it is a challenge.
But with an issue so complex as support, how can we start to understand the impact it can have on us? First, we have to understand exactly why receiving proper help is so crucial.
This week’s interviewee and I sit on the roof of the SU, treating our chat as a welcome break from the stress of essay writing. A perceptive and intellectual classmate of mine, our conversation fluctuates quickly from discussion of our course to of our mental health with tellingly little distinction between the two.
The first point we discuss is the counselling provision at LSE. While I don’t wish to enter into the politics of this issue, his story of being turned away from regular counselling is not infrequent, and the effect this has on him has been crushing. Support, he says, matters not only because it gives us an environment in which we can develop coping strategies, but because it gives our emotional difficulties validity. Not receiving this support can lead us to question whether our concerns are legitimate, and whether our struggles are important.
Indeed, this is the crux of why support is so important; be it a counsellor or a close friend, the acknowledgement that our feelings are valid can be key to our ability to cope with and understand them. When people support us, we receive external confirmation that the things we struggle with are important.
But if support is so important, how can we get it right? This a complicated question, and not one that receives much attention. Often, take the willingness to support friends as a given. Sayings such as “of course I’m here for my friends” and “I’m always here if you need me” stem from idea that being compassionate is an obligation, not a choice.
However, when we view emotional support in this way it can understate the difficulty of being there for others when we are struggling ourselves.
Helping others can be draining because empathy requires emotional energy that can be hard to muster when we are tired, stressed, or upset. This is something this week’s interviewee has experienced first-hand: he tells me about a friendship from his first year that was characterized by emotional co-dependence and a subsequent inability to constructively help each other. This, my interviewee admits, was hard to acknowledge. How can we tell others that we are unable to support them because of our own needs?
But the ability to acknowledge mutual defeatism is important. While it may be difficult, a strong friendship is one based on the acknowledgement of each other’s emotional needs, not unwavering, unconditional attention. Therefore, being aware that there are limits to how often we can truly be helpful to our friends might help us to avoid wallowing.
But how can we make sure that we walk the line between being supporting others and looking after ourselves? The answer lies in reciprocity. To help others is an emotional investment that goes two ways, and is not unconditional. If we can respect that others may not always be in the right place to help us, we make space for ourselves to focus on ourselves when we need it most. Emotional sovereignty, then, can allow emotional reciprocity to be more constructive and less self-defeating.