A smile, a word, a question

Niamh Kelleher 10 February 2024

People should never underestimate the value of a kind gesture in supporting other’s mental health.

Changing attitudes to mental health starts with one small act by one individual. A simple gesture can make a huge difference to someone who is struggling, sow the seeds for a positive climate for change, and answer Jesus’ call to love one another. So, what will you do?

It’s universally understood that patrons should be quiet in a library. Yet if you look inside the minds of the students inhabiting said space, it is anything but. For instance, think of a girl sitting in the corner desk. She has papers spread sporadically, her leg is bouncing, and she is gnawing her lip. She clenches and unclenches her jaw. Just by looking at her, you can tell she is riddled with anxiety over more than just the assignment due tomorrow.

By contrast, a boy sits on the other side of the library, scrolling through his phone mindlessly. He shouldn’t be, the beckoning pile of work awaits him, and yet mindless scrolling is all his tired, weary being can muster right now.

But it’s not all bad. Imagine a girl tapping her anxious friend on the shoulder, giving a comforting smile, and helping her work through her anxious bubble. Imagine the boy recollecting what his counsellor said to him earlier that day and forgiving himself for a momentary slump before starting on a small task. If this same scenario was to have happened 20 odd years ago, the response may have been quite different.

The climate surrounding mental health has changed over the past 20 years. From positive discussions among friends to increased support and awareness, shifting social attitudes around mental health have not only provided help for more people but are also answering Jesus’ call for Christians to love one another.

The words ‘mental health’ have long been followed with uneasy conversations, shuffling in seats and pregnant silence. Historically, seeking treatment for mental health issues has been a dicey business, with some historical treatments considered ineffective and inhumane by today’s standards. People suffering mental health conditions were often persecuted, incarcerated, tortured or forgotten.

However, in recent times, treatments have improved, there is more awareness of patient rights and social media has seen what could almost been described a glamorisation of some mental health issues. Yet societal attitudes towards mental illness are slow to change. Discussion of issues surrounding mental health requires gentle hands, as well as an understanding of the delicacy and complexity that is the human mind.

One catalyst for change in attitudes to caring for our mental health would be, surprisingly, the rise of technology.

While technology is paradoxical in terms of mental health, it is noted as a central health communication tool, with more than 20 billion views of #mentalhealth on TikTok. Allowing people to share their experiences, insight and support to one another, and reducing the stigmatisation of mental health due to increased discussion and normalisation.

Websites such as Kids Helpline (www.kidshelpline.com.au) also provide strategies on how to access technology use that is healthy for our minds. They suggest following professional mental health pages, joining groups where you feel safe and supported, as well as encouraging taking a break from the screens. Moreover, technology can also offer support such as challenges or initiatives, such as the Black Dog Institute’s Bite Back Mental Fitness Challenge, which provides six weekly challenges that help to improve mental fitness and reduce stress.

Anna*, a Year 11 student from Sydney, NSW comments on the challenges of speaking up about mental health. ‘You’ve got to be a bit more vulnerable with it. You don’t really know if you're saying the right thing or if it’s acceptable to say.’

Anna said the issue was hard to discuss due to it being an ‘invisible experience’. ‘It’s harder to tell when someone’s going through something mentally (rather) than physically.’

Yet Anna remains hopeful for the future. She said the normalisation of mental health also answers Jesus’ call for Christians to love one another.

This is evident throughout Jesus’ life and mission; his spreading of the Word of God remains more relevant than ever in the mental health climate. Matthew 11:28-30 states ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’. The Lord wants us to relieve ourselves of heavy burdens, many of which weigh down on our mental health. Through supporting one another and destigmatising mental health issues, we can answer his call to do this. Remember to ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ – John 13:34.

Just as the girl comforts her anxious friend in the library. As the boy pauses and smiles to recollect what his counsellor said to him. Contributing to the changing climate of mental health can all start with a small act. A smile. A word. A question.

So, what will you do?

Niamh Kelleher is a member of the Australian Catholics young writers community.

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.


If this article has raised any concerns or issues for you, there are a number of organisations that can offer help, including:
Lifeline: 13 11 14.
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636.


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