I recently uploaded my first YouTube video addressing different techniques that can be used to make it easier to talk about mental health needs with people who have little or no understanding of the symptoms of mental health. Today I am addressing the same topic, but from the other side, offering my advice on what to do when someone reaches out to you.
This is something I have previously written about, which can be found here, but I found that I have more to say and newer perspectives on the subject.
Your Experiences (Or Lack Of)
When we talk to people about issues in their lives that they are experiencing it is very common for us to relate these experiences to similar ones of our own, we try to empathise with that person and help them. Fantastic, right?
But what if you have no experience with a mental health issue and a loved one confides in you or reaches out to you for support. It can be incredibly daunting, you want to help, but you don’t know how, and are afraid that saying the wrong thing will make us so much worse. Perhaps you’ve had a really bad experience trying to support someone in the past and don’t feel equipped to deal with the topic. Well, you are not alone in thinking and feeling this way.
There are a number of online resources offering advice on how to respond, and of course every individual is different and every situation is different. However there are a few simple things you can do to ensure that the interaction between you and said loved one is as positive and supportive as it can be.
Step One : Respond
Whilst this might seem immediately obvious to some people, I can tell you now from experience that this is not always the case! I have lost count of how many times I have reached out and sent a message, to be left on read, or for my message not to be opened when the person is clearly online.
There can be a number of reasons not to reply to someone, especially immediately, we all live busy lives and have our own stuff to deal with and that is perfectly fine. However, what it is important to remember is that the person who reached out has probably spent hours, days, maybe even weeks trying to build up the courage to do that. By not replying, our mind starts to spiral. We think we are a burden, we are useless, unloved and unsupported. Our illness already tells us that we are those things, so when we are presented with (what we believe to be) evidence towards this we run with it, this can be very harmful.
The best thing to do is to simply be honest, if you are tied up at the moment, there is no harm in sending a quick message along the lines of “Hey, I want to make sure I can talk to you about this properly, I’ll message you back after x” or anything to that description. It really helps us not panic that we have just embarrassed ourselves massively.
Step Two: Be Honest
I often find that when I have reached out to people in the past, who through no fault of their own are not well equipped to discuss mental health, I am left feeling invalidated. When trying to tell someone how I have been feeling, I am often met with responses such as “Thats normal” or “I feel that way too”
I think this stems from a lack of appropriate language when discussing the symptoms of a mental illness, depression is often misread as sadness or tiredness for example. We all feel sad and tired sometimes, but we don’t always experience depression.
This again comes from the natural response to be to try and empathise someone’s experiences against your own, and form an understanding, but in this case it creates a rift. The sufferer feels even less understood, and the supporter probably feels even less capable to help.
It is perfectly OK to tell us you don’t understand. I would much rather be met with “That sounds awful, I am really sorry you are suffering at the moment and I want to help where I can, but it isn’t something I know a lot about” then “Yeah I feel that way too” when no, you simply don’t.
Step 3: Don’t Find the Solution
Another common response I see given to those people who reach out is “You just need to do x”. Most people reaching out with mental health issues have already tried to solve their problems in the ways they know how. If they haven’t done that, they are either too sick to even go through the motions of completing this action, or it didn’t work.
It is important to remember that if you don’t understand how something feels or manifests in someone, it is unlikely that you can solve their problem. The good news however, is most of the time, we don’t want you to. We want the support and understanding that will allow us to rebuild ourselves and climb the mountain by ourselves.
It can sometimes be useful to offer suggestions, such as going out for a coffee or getting some fresh air and exercise, but this won’t always be received well depending on their state of mind. Now, you are not a mental health professional. How on earth are you support to work out if they want suggestions or just an ear? It’s actually really easy… ask them. Might sound weird, but this can be as simple as “I’m glad you feel comfortable talking to me about this, if I can think of anything that might help would you like me to share this as we go, or do you need to get everything off your chest.”
Step 4: Question
As we discuss our inner thoughts and private feelings with you, we might not fully explain something or perhaps we will use a word to describe a symptom and you’re not fully sure what we mean by this. Sometimes the sufferer will still be trying to downplay their suffering as to not “make a scene” or we may use phrases like “My heads not right today” which offers little detail.
This can initiate the panic of saying the wrong thing or not knowing what to say, just like it is OK to tell us you don’t understand, it is okay to ask us to explain, and when we can we will. Again this can be as simple as “When you say your head isn’t right, what does that specifically feel like to you?”
Step Five: Respect Privacy
As mentioned above, we are sharing very private thoughts and feelings with you, and we feel very vulnerable in doing so. Some people may not chose to share everything with you from the start, this can be frustrating as you are trying to help without knowing the full story, but be patient. As we see that we can trust you, and are safe to confide in you, more will come. A big part of this is it is critically important that you establish this person’s stance on their mental state.
Some people, such as myself, are an open book when it comes down to mental health, others choose to keep this very private and most people sit somewhere between the two. You need to know this, as it is important that you don’t accidently breach trust by talking about this to other people, or making it obvious in some way.
Step Six: Set Boundaries
So far this post has been mostly focused on how not to give a negative response, but it is possible to overcompensate for this and go the other way. I often hear the response of “Call me any time day or night” which is great, but highly impractical. Now perhaps you have little to no commitments, have a flexible job or any kind of lifestyle set up that means you can take a call at 3:15am no problem, but what if you have kids, a structured rota, appointments etc you need to make. Being honest about this doesn’t mean you are not being supportive, we would much rather hear “I am here for you if you need me, I might not be able to reply straight away if I am at work but I will get back to you after I finish at x time” and to have the right expectation than to go into a blind panic because the people who said “Call any time” are nowhere to be seen at that moment.
It is also important to set boundaries for the level of support you can provide, supporting someone with a mental illness can be exhausting and very difficult at times. You need to ensure you are taking the time for yourself as well and not putting yourself at risk of burning out. We need you fit and healthy. Saying you need a break from someone may not be the best approach, but needing some time to reflect is not a bad thing.
Ultimately, it is all about communication. The more open, honest and detailed the communication can be between both sides the more productive these conversations will be.