First of all, happy mental health week! It’s also occupational health and safety week, which gives us two excellent prompts to reflect on psychological health policies and practices in our workplaces. That’ll be a post for another day – actually, we’ve discussed those themes before (check out this blog post about the importance of bringing mental health to the forefront in at work, this one about why you should equip your team members with Mental Health First Aid training and this one about employee mental health for workplaces operating virtually). Last week’s post explored five approaches to avoid when supporting someone who’s struggling (if you missed it, be sure to check it out HERE for context first). We’ve got five more for you – #6 through #10 – this week!
6. The Interrogator
What it sounds like: “You’ve got to get it off your chest. Lay it on me. Start at the beginning and don’t leave anything out.”
While this idea may be (sort of) valid, it’s important that the person who’s struggling explores deeper issues with a qualified mental health professional. Pressuring someone to open up about more than what they’re offering up voluntarily can do far more harm than good, particularly if trauma is involved. Instead, create a safe, open, non-judgmental space that allows them to share as much or as little as they want to. Share appropriate resources for health care providers who can provide that next level of support.
7. The “Sweet Nothings” Philosopher
What it sounds like: “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Remember, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
…Or any one of another thousand well-worn expressions that have become clichés. These are often the things we say when we don’t know what to say, but we feel we’ve got to say something. While these words of wisdom might be words you live by, they’re not necessarily ideas that will resonate with the values of the person who’s struggling. Besides that, the bigger issue is that these statements don’t encourage action; rather, they communicate that a person should accept their distress for the time being and be OK with it, having faith that at some point in the future they’ll see that the universe or some higher being inflicted the pain they’re in for a greater purpose. As helpers, our aim is to support a person in taking a step toward recovery from mental distress. Statements like this can further the feelings of helplessness they might already be experiencing.
8. The One-Upper
What it sounds like: “You think that’s bad? Listen to what happened to me/my cousin/someone I read about on the internet!”
We sometimes bring our own experiences (or those of someone else we know) into the conversation in attempt to relate to what a person is describing. Comparing one person’s experience to another seldom yields a positive result. If a hundred people endure the same set of circumstances there are going to be a hundred different responses. Whether you’ve gone through something similar or not, you can still empathize with a person’s struggles by forging a genuine human connection and that’s done through listening to better understand them and what they’re going through… not by talking.
9. The Sage
What it sounds like: “Well, that doesn’t make sense. Why did you say/do/think that? Why don’t you just ‘XYZ’ instead?”
Have you ever struggled with something and solicited support from someone only to find they seem to think they have all the answers? Pretty annoying, right? When you’re going through a rough time it can seem like everyone else has got it all together, and mental health problems often make a person feel isolated, disconnected and hopeless. Assuming that there’s a simple fix communicates that you’re not understanding the depth of what the person’s going through.
10. The Arms’ Length Helper
What it sounds like: “Well, I don’t want to keep bugging you. Let me know if you need anything.”
I’ll bet we’ve all had someone say these words to us before, and how many of us have actually contacted that person and said, “Hey, remember when you told me you’d help me? I’m ready to take you up on the offer now. Here’s what I need.”? There’s a fine line between checking in and badgering. Making a point to touch base and follow up after a conversation about mental health can go a long way to normalizing the situation and reassuring the person that they have nothing to feel embarrassed about. Don’t leave the ball in the other person’s court. A simple, “Hey, how are you doing? I’ve been thinking about you,” makes it easy for the next conversation to happen if the person wishes, and it’s also simple enough for them to respond with, “Oh, I’m good, thanks for asking,” if they don’t want to talk further right then.
We ended Part One last week by emphasizing that listening can be an incredibly powerful tool and one of the greatest gifts we can give someone when they’re struggling with their mental health. It’s an idea that bears repeating! All too often we, as helpers or “would-be helpers”, get hung up on our own words – “What should I say? What will I say if they say ‘XYZ’? What if I don’t know what to say?” Focus less on talking and more on listening and you won’t go wrong.
Thanks for tuning in, everyone. See you next time!
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.