Beyond #GetHelp: How to Support a Friend in Crisis—from Someone Who Has Been There

Because good doctors are hard to find, medications are expensive and support isn’t *always* a phone call away

(Photograph: Stocksy)
(Photograph: Stocksy)

Last week saw two celebrity suicides in quick succession. Like clockwork, the hashtag #gethelp immediately began trending on Twitter.

I know this imploring comes from a desire for our friends to be okay. But if you have struggled with mental illness, you know that the dominant narrative that “help is just a phone call away” is so untrue that it feels almost cruel.

Of course, I agree that we should reach out when we feel our sense of safety slipping away. But at the same time, we need to acknowledge that the “help” in question can range from unaffordable to unsafe.

This winter, I had worst mental health crisis of my life. I couldn’t sleep more than three hours a night and if I managed to eat an apple and drink an Ensure, it was a successful day. My heart raced so constantly that my Fitbit registered 11 hours of cardio on days I couldn’t get out of bed.

I wanted to get better; I tried to get help. I made more than one 3 a.m. call to a crisis line. One of them left me on hold for 35 minutes then denied having done so. Another wouldn’t help me until I expressed a willingness to complete an email satisfaction survey after the call. I was prescribed medications that helped, but I couldn’t always afford to fill the prescription

When I eventually got benefits at work, I learned they would “not cover charges incurred for, caused by, or contributed to by suicide or attempted suicide.” I became petrified that someone would assess me as at risk of self-harm—and I would lose the benefits that were finally making my meds affordable. And after I’d had a couple of months and nearly a thousand dollars’ worth of therapy, I discovered my insurance company didn’t cover the appointments, as I was seeing a registered psychotherapist, not a psychiatrist or a psychologist.

One night, during an unending panic attack, I called Ontario’s health advice hotline and a registered nurse suggested I might be in shock. I headed to the nearest ER in my downtown Toronto neighbourhood. I waited for four hours only to be told to go to  the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and begin the intake process all over again. When I explained why I didn’t want to, the doctor declared me “insightful and resourceful” and sent me home.

I was lucky to get a great deal of support outside of the system. Even though I’d only been at my current employer for two months at that point, my bosses regularly checked in to make sure my tasks were not interfering with my recovery. Even better, no one ever made me feel weird if I ended up in tears during staff meetings. When my treasured doctor (who I found through my then-partner) retired, he had made sure that his practice was taken over by someone who was equally committed to mental health advocacy. Finally, I also had a solid crew of friends who organized schedules to ensure I was never alone when it wasn’t safe for me to be.

But as many barriers as I faced, others face far more. Calling 911 in a crisis often results in a police visit, which for many individuals makes the situation only more dangerous. When some folks disclose mental illness, they risk losing their jobs or even their children. In a recent report from Winnipeg, an Indigenous woman says that she was asked during labour to complete a questionnaire that included questions about mental health; afterward, her child became a ward of the state.

This system is a mess, but it’s what we have to work with—and helping a friend in crisis navigate it while advocating for a better one is much more meaningful than just telling them to go get help.

Doing so might mean going to the hospital with them and insisting they are taken seriously. It might mean digging through their workplace policies to see if they qualify for prescription drugs, medical care and mental health support (and then helping them do all the required paperwork). It might mean taking notes during their doctor’s appointments, and remembering to ask if there are free samples of prescription medications available.

It also means making the system better. Challenge your own employer or insurance company to offer better support. Put pressure on your provincial and federal members of parliament to enact changes to improve access to mental health treatment, services and medication.

We all want our friends to #gethelp. Keep in mind those friends need you to #givehelp, too.

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