It’s my personal contention that most humans who witness distress in another person have a desire to help. It’s in the doing that it can get tricky. When I deliver Mental Health First Aid training I always emphasize to my groups that there are many different “right ways” to initiate a conversation about mental health. We should, though, bear in mind that especially when someone’s in a less-than-optimal state of mental health and emotions are running high our intentions might be different from what’s interpreted by the person who’s struggling. Interpersonal communication at the best of times is filled with nuance, with context, body language, past experiences and more factoring in to how our words are perceived. Sometimes with the best of intentions we end up scrambling for words, misunderstanding a person, communicating an unintended message or letting our own discomfort get in the way of being an effective helper. This week (and next) we’re breaking down some approaches to avoid when offering support to someone who’s struggling with their mental health… even though the intentions are usually nothing but good.
1. The Relater
What it sounds like: “I know exactly what you mean. I went through the same thing.”
No two people have truly endured the exact same experience, and even if that were possible we’re all different people and we’ve had previous life experiences that shape the way we interpret things. 100 people who have gone through a similar experience are going to have 100 different responses. Making the assumption that your situation was similar and/or that you feel/have felt the same way they do can end up making the person feel like you’re just not hearing them. It also shifts the conversation from their experience to yours, and it’s not about us right then. Our focus should be on meeting their needs, not trying to relate what we’re hearing to our own life. If our aim is to help, our own experience doesn’t really have any bearing in that moment. After all, you don’t have to have had the same experience to empathize with the fact that a person is going through something tough.
2. The Problem Solver
What it sounds like: “Ok, here’s what we’re going to do…”
You hate to see this person going through a hard time and you want to fix the problem. What’s wrong with that? Remember, the decisions needing to be made here aren’t yours to make. What we would do to deal with the situation shouldn’t have any bearing when it’s someone else’s journey. Our role as a helper is to make a person aware of the resources that are available to them, not to take their problem from them or tell them what we think they need to do. The person who’s struggling should be empowered to decide what next steps feel comfortable for them.
3. The Minimizer
What it sounds like: “Listen, why don’t you go to bed early tonight – I’m sure things will look better in the morning.”
Usually long before anyone else is aware a person’s even going through a hard time they’ve wrestled with the issue and tried to correct it themselves If there was a simple solution they likely would have found it already. Downplaying the situation is often born out of our own discomfort with conversations that feel vulnerable or are emotionally-charged. Perhaps you’re not sure what to say so you try and come up with some tidbit of advice. If you find yourself struggling to come up with something to say remind yourself that you actually don’t need to say a whole lot – open your ears. In reality, there’s no magical phrase or simple tip you can give the person that’s going to fix the situation. What will make them feel well supported is a sense of connection and feeling heard and understood.
4. The Armchair Psychiatrist
What it sounds like: “That sounds to me like clinical depression. I read an article about it in my dentist’s office. You need to tell your doctor to prescribe you ‘XYZ’.”
Let’s leave the diagnosing to those who are qualified to do it. Instead of suggesting a disorder, listen without judgment to what a person’s going through. Let them know about resources that are available to them and offer to help take that next step if/when they’re ready. Rather than suggesting prescription medication (which may be explored when a person accesses a health care professional) engage them in brainstorming some lifestyle changes that could be helpful, like finding a healthy work/life balance, carving out time to connect with family and friends, getting enough sleep, physical activity and fresh air or rekindling a hobby. Making self care a priority is important and can have a seriously positive impact on our mental health.
5. The Convincer
What it sounds like: “…But you’ve got such a great life! You’ve got a good job, a family who loves you and you’re an awesome person! You should feel grateful. I know things might be tough right now but remember, it could always be worse!”
The “shoulds” don’t usually serve us well when it comes to mental health problems. Guess what? All those things listed above – the person has probably already thought of all of them, and not only that, they may well feel guilty because their symptoms are persisting despite all the “reasons” they shouldn’t feel that way. Reminding them of all the good things in their life might just perpetuate self stigma and make them feel ashamed for disclosing that they’re struggling. Mental health problems, by definition, are something more significant than a simple change in mood. When someone opens up don’t respond with reasons you think their experience should be different. Listen, take what they’re saying seriously and discuss options for help.
When someone’s going through a hard time one of the most impactful things you can do to support them is just listening. Listen with an open mind, avoiding judgments and assumptions. Focus less on asking questions and figuring out what you’re going to say next and more on gaining a deeper understanding of what the person’s at right now.
If you found today’s post interesting be sure to tune in next week for Part 2, where we’ll unpack five more “what not to do” approaches.
Stay well, my friends! See you next week.
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.