How are you?
And no, I don't mean it as a greeting. Almost everyone uses it as a placeholder for 'Hello!', and don't expect an answer other than, "Good, and you?" The same goes for your standard openers such as "How's your day?", "Are you well?", or "How's the form?" (Which apparently means the same thing in Ireland, but nevertheless left me massively confused as a Non-Brit). I really mean it this time. How are you?
Are you happy? Are you sad? Do you go to bed with any lingering thoughts? Do you wake up in the morning with any dread? Are you content with what you're doing in life now? Or do you feel like you're not meant to be there? Do you do the things that you enjoy? Do you see the friends and family that you want to?
These are all pretty heavy questions, probably not the kind of material someone who casually bumped into you on the way to Costa would be expecting. But we go through so much of our day asking 'How are you,' without really wanting a real answer. And because we never expect the truth, we never give the truth too when people ask it in return.
Because when your friend says, "I'm good, and you?" - she could be telling a big fat lie. She could be struggling with getting herself out of bed because everyday she dreads the tasks and responsibilities she has to bear. Her boss might have insulted her just a couple of hours ago but she doesn't want to bring it up because she doesn't think you want to hear it. She might have problems sleeping at night because she's so worried about what might happen tomorrow, or what has happened yesterday. She might feel completely alone because she has no one to talk to, and assumes that you're another one of her friends who doesn't want to hear it. All this might be in the back of her mind, but she hides it with a mask that's been programmed to say to the world "I'm good, and you?" It's much easier to pretend than to be honest with yourself, and with others.
Mental disorders are extremely prevalent in our society - NHS England estimates that 1 in 4 people in any given year will have a mental condition such as depression, anxiety, or anorexia. It's a big problem that unfortunately doesn't get the same support as heart disease, cancer, or HIV. We're great at treating physical illness, but when it comes to mental health many of our services fall short. A big part of the reason lies in the stigma that surrounds mental health, and how uncomfortable many of us are about talking about it. It's easy to tell people that we have a broken bone. But to tell them that you've been so upset that you've thought about self-injury (or worse) is much more difficult.
But fortunately, the treatment for mental health does not require a million pound equipment or fancy drugs. Studies have shown that much of mental health can be treated just by having a good social support, being more open with friends and family, and flagging up problems with the GP so that professional help can be brought in when required. Often though, it's difficult for people with mental conditions to get the ball rolling.They rather deal with their burdens themselves because they think it will pass, or downplay the severity of the situation.
Be the friend that helps them along. Be the person that gets them to open up. It's hard asking someone about those 'big tough questions', and initially they might not want to answer them. But getting them to talk about their problems is the first step to actually solving them. Who knows - maybe they've been waiting for the day for someone to genuinely want to know how they are doing. Even the most hardy of us long for human compassion once in awhile.
Ask your friend, "How are you?" And this time, really mean it.