Don’t jump in without your buoy

Make sure you take of yourself while you’re taking care of others, even if the situation is challenging

For the past couple of summers, I’ve worked as a lifeguard. In training they always teach you to take care of yourself first before helping others. We practice specific maneuvers to protect ourselves from drowning patrons. We learn not to jump into dangerous waters. We learn to put gloves on before nursing a wound, even if it is life threatening. We don’t jump in the water unless we have a buoy.

Most of these maneuvers come as no surprise. It makes sense for the safety of other patrons, that the lifeguard protect themselves, even if it means putting one patron in danger for a small fraction of time. These behaviors are seen as commonplace at a pool. In the realm of mental health, however, they are not.

When was the last time someone came to you with a problem and you checked in with yourself to see if you could handle it? When was the last time you protected your own mental health? Put the gloves on, called out to someone more specially trained?

More often than not, people are afraid to treat mental health as seriously as it should be treated. Many don’t want to escalate a situation by reaching out and getting a buoy themselves, leaning on mental health resources, so it can be even more difficult as another person to do that. But if you don’t, you both may drown.

While there are effective ways to support from the shore, to throw a lifesaver, that may not always be enough. Being the shoulder to cry on, the person to vent to, the one that cares, may not always help that person. And there comes a point when you feel you need to get into the water with them, to become a pseudo-therapist, and delve deep into their darkness. 

But you don’t have a buoy. You may be a strong swimmer, but that isn’t all that’s necessary. We need to leave severe mental health concerns to the professionals, those who have the buoy.

And it can be difficult if those you’re helping don’t want to take that step or can’t afford to take that step, because, let’s face it, long-term therapy in the United States is expensive. But you have to work with them to find ways to take it seriously. Come up with payment plans, look for therapists that have a reduced cost, pool money from family and friends.

Beyond this, even if you do find yourself delving into the darkness—because mental health isn’t as cut and dry as a pool deck—make sure you’re putting your gloves on. Make sure your checking in with yourself throughout the whole process. Make sure you’re being kind to yourself, taking time to have a breather after the fact. Make sure you’re not absorbing the problems of those around you.

Sometimes we can get bogged down trying to climb up to the moral high ground of altruism and we fall right back down. Don’t let that give, give, give mentality put you in a dangerous spot. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself while you’re taking care of others, before it may be too late.


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