Person helping another person up.

Catching Friends Before Rock Bottom

By Max Hollander

Hitting bottom and hitting it hard was the worst thing that ever happened to me and the best thing that ever happened to me.” (Dave Ramsey). Popular quotes like this one implicitly garner support for the infamous, yet false, myth that in order to recover from mental illness, those who are experiencing it need to hit “rock bottom” before seeking help.

Rock bottom is defined as “the point at which someone with a substance use disorder [or mental illness] feels the lowest they can possibly feel. This can be triggered by life-altering events such as losing custody of their child, getting arrested or other eye-opening experiences.” (American Addictions Center)

It is true that people aren’t always ready to accept help, even when they desperately need it, but that doesn’t mean we need to wait until they hit rock bottom before accepting or seeking help. We can and should intervene before our friends get to that point. But we need to understand how to do it most effectively and sensitively. Consider how the third-century scholar Rabbi Yoḥanan cared for his student, Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba, in tractate Berakhot from the Babylonian Talmud.

Rabbi Yoḥanan’s student, Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba, fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan went to visit him, and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Do you desire to be ill and afflicted? Rabbi Ḥiyya said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward... Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yoḥanan raised him and restored him to health. Similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan fell ill. Rabbi Ḥanina went to visit him, and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Rabbi Ḥanina said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Ḥanina raised him and restored him to health.

While not explicitly about mental anguish, this story presents a simple and important method of providing efficient care for those who are suffering. It illustrates how effective it can be to help someone you love by offering support early rather than forcing it. Had force been applied in the healing process in either case above, they would have run the risk of violating the autonomy of the people they were trying to help and pushing them further away.

In a story shared by the World Health Organization, a woman named Alexandra describes one of the key components in the success of her recovery: “Empowering people to have control over their life and mental health care instills personal dignity, value and respect. It can increase self-esteem and confidence.” She goes on to explain: “Receiving autonomy over my mental health care was the greatest contributor to my recovery…My current therapist sees me as a person rather than a mental illness. [When I first met her], she asked me about my interests, wanted to know my work style and was eager to work together to construct a pathway to my mental well-being.”

By asking about the thoughts and feelings of the people suffering, it made them more open to accepting the hand that reached out to them.

The story above has an additional moral in the proceeding lines of the passage:

The Gemara asks: Why did Rabbi Yoḥanan wait for Rabbi Ḥanina to restore him to health? If he was able to heal his student, let Rabbi Yoḥanan stand himself up. The Gemara answers: A prisoner cannot generally free himself from prison, but depends on others to release him from his shackles.

Some caregivers make the mistake of thinking they can’t also be care receivers. Take physicians. The American Medical Association offers an explanation for why they are less likely to seek support from others: “Physicians encourage patients to share concerns about depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions, yet they are less likely to seek help themselves due to stigma.” Additionally, the AMA suggests the difficult life of physicians subtly encourages them to “cope” alone rather than seek help and risk looking weak to their peers.

This fallacy is played out in the story of Rabbi Yoḥanan and his students. Despite knowing the benefits of a helpful hand, Rabbi Yoḥanan, the regular care provider, neglects to reach out for help for himself.

This simple story underscores these critical truths. We need to be willing to listen to the needs of others in order to best help them, and everyone needs to be able to accept help from the people who love them.

Max Hollander (he/him) is the Marketing and Content Manager at the Blue Dove Foundation where he is driven by a desire to help communities create supportive spaces for individuals experiencing mental illness. He focuses his time on content production, resource creation, graphic design, digital communications, social media, and building organizational partnerships. His career so far has led him to opportunities in a wide spectrum of Jewish denominations, working in a variety of mediums. 

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