This Mental Health Awareness Week you will have most likely seen a lot of statistics thrown around (such as here). In case you need a refresher, here are three key ones:
1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in their life.
1 in 6 people in the UK are experiencing a mental health problem in any given week.
20.6% of people have had suicidal thoughts in their lifetime and
6.7 % have attempted suicide.
This information isn’t to scare you
It is so that you can clearly see that someone close to you is quite possibly struggling, and you might not know how to help. This information isn’t solely for friends, family, partners, and carers of individuals with psychiatric diagnoses. This is also not an exhaustive list. These are six simple things you should bear in mind when supporting a friend, or a stranger.
1. Forget the word ‘just’ and the phrase ‘at least’
In a video I love so much I have decided to share right below, Brené Brown tells us ‘rarely does an empathic response begin with “at least”‘.
That video teaches us four very important concepts of empathy that are key to supporting someone so, if you’re really serious about supporting someone, please check it out.
The words ‘just’ and ‘at least’ minimise a person’s experience. ‘Just cheer up’, ‘just think positive’, ‘just eat more’… ‘at least you have a job’, ‘at least it’s the weekend’, you get it. It is hugely common for us to think we are helping by offering a positive flip side or a solution. It’s not necessary, I promise you. For people who are struggling, myself included, the very last thing we want to be told is how we should be fixing it or, even worse, how we should have acted at the time. Please, don’t feel the need to solve our problems for us. That brings me on to point two.
2. All you need to do is listen
And I don’t mean sit on your phone glancing up every so often and making ‘hm’ noises. Listen actively. Eye contact, emotional investment, show understanding, and don’t butt in! Like above, your gut reaction may be to tell them to stop whining and do something about it – don’t. This isn’t the time for that, it isn’t your time. If you are hearing your voice more than theirs, ask yourself ‘am I giving them what they need?’ Ask them; am I giving you what you need?
Kudos to you if you’re the practical ‘fix it’ type, some of us aren’t. Better yet, some of us could be if we were guided and asked until we figured it out for ourselves instead of being told what we should be doing. To do this, be inquisitive. Ask what happened, ask how they felt, ask what they want to do next. Ask how you can help, ask how they feel, people who feel heard will be more confident in solving their own problems.
3. Let them know you’re listening
While sounds of ‘mhmm’ and saying ‘yeah’ let’s them know you’re still on the phone or in the room, actual phrases are even better. At appropriate intervals, speak honestly. This might sound like:
“I can’t imagine how tough that was for you”
“It sounds like you’re really struggling”
“I think I’d feel the same way if it were me”
“Could you explain a bit more about…”
Notice how none of the phrases do anything other than acknowledge that the other person is struggling. You’re not offering an action plan or an opinion, and it can even help to admit that you wouldn’t have a clue in their situation.
4. Check in with them
There are memes all over the place of us girls ‘calling our friend whose advice we didn’t take to tell them we ruined our lives again’. This is another reason fixers should avoid fixing. Check in with the person to see how they are getting on. Have they found any solutions? Have they thought about professional support? Is the situation any better or worse? It’s ok to signpost them to people who can help if they are still struggling.
There are also memes of the frustrated friend who gave the advice that wasn’t taken. Sometimes people aren’t ready to reach out for support, you might have been as far up the chain as they felt comfortable going. It can be frustrating, so when you check in bear in mind that you don’t need to have expectations of them. You’re just there to listen.
5. If they do want support, point them in the direction
There are support services for pretty much everyone, everywhere. I keep linking to charities such as Mind, Shout, and Samaritans, and yesterday I posted about talking therapies in England. You can suggest options, help them to research services, or even ask your GP or local community centres what is on offer.
Supporting someone is difficult and can be challenging, remember that you are not the professional here. And even if you are one, it is likely this person isn’t a patient or client, so involve appropriate services. You don’t need to tackle this by yourself.
6. Look after yourself
You can’t pour from an empty cup and you have to put your oxygen mask on first before helping other passengers. Ensure that you are keeping an eye on your own mental wellbeing; are you sleeping well, eating enough, keeping up responsibilities and activities you enjoy?
It is very easy to prioritise a loved one, especially if we think they are worse off than ourselves. If you want to support someone in the best, most effective way possible, look after yourself first.
Oh, and please avoid these phrases too.
“You have nothing to be depressed/upset/anxious about”
“But you’re not really ill, it’s not like cancer or something”
“Well you just get on with it don’t you”
“People have it much worse than you”
And perhaps consider your tone of voice, asking ‘what’s wrong with you?’ can sound concerned, angry, accusational, or just plain fed up. Which do you think is the most likely to get a person to confide in you?
Hope this helps, let me know if you think any more should be added or if you have any questions!