Perhaps the thing I hear most often when educating people around mental health and mental illness is fears around making it worse. The vast majority of the wonderful people I meet genuinely want to help and are enthusiastic about supporting someone in distress. They want to lend an ear or be a shoulder to cry on. But.
As a society we seem to be held back by our lack of knowledge around mental health and mental illness. Our fear of putting our foot in it stops us putting our best foot forward. We doubt our skills and our abilities to support those around us. But we don’t need to.
When people ask me about supporting someone in distress with a mental health problem or someone going through a hard time I ask them what they would do. The vast majority of the time they already know. We have instincts about what would work and what won’t. Most of us have had experiences of what has helped us through hard times. We need to use it.
What people seem to want most from me in these situations is the rubber stamp of approval. We want confirmation that we’re doing the right thing. And that’s okay. What we need to do is boost our confidence in looking out for each other. Most of us already have the skills. Even if you do, it’s alright to want to practise using them or learn more.
Connection, Connection, Connection
Whether you feel you know what to do or not, here are my thoughts. Supporting someone in distress or through a hard time, whether a physical, mental, spiritual or emotional event, is about being a human being. It’s about one person connecting to another. What’s the best way to do this? Listen. Many of us think we know how to do this. I’m not convinced. This quote (author unknown) summons it up beautifully:
“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply”
It’s so easy to get caught up in our own thoughts and how we will respond to what we’ve heard. When we do this, we’ve stopped listening. We’ve missed what has just been said. Truly listening to someone means putting our own thoughts and feelings aside. When we do this we are in a better position to help. We’ve heard the whole rather than the half.
To Advise or Not?
When someone comes to us with a problem or we want to be supportive we seem to assume that this means advice. For some of us we may panic about what advice we should give. Good communication and support doesn’t require this. We need to take the pressure off. It’s not our job to have all the answers or to tell someone what they should do. Often the advice we pressure ourselves to give is unsolicited or unwanted.
Supporting someone means not subverting the hierarchy. Don’t make their problem about you. They’ve come to you for support. They need time to be truly heard. Don’t take this away from them. If you’ve got experience ask them if they’d like to know what helped you. But ask them and make it an offer. It can be as simple as saying: “I went through something similar, xxx helped me. Is that something you’re interested in trying?”.
What if they ask you for help or advice? Think through this together. Again you don’t need to have the answers. If you’ve had relevant experience then see above. If you’ve got an idea make it a suggestion. “I’ve heard that this might help. What are your thoughts?”. Any solution needs to be something they feel good about. They need to be invested in the next steps. Moreover, giving someone the answers isn’t empowering and in frequent cases creates a culture of helplessness. Come to an idea of what to do next together. A great starting point is to ask if this has happened before and if so, what helped. Why reinvent the wheel when they may already have ideas?
So what are the takeaways here? Listen. Really listen. Be empathetic. Don’t make the situation about yourself. Just being there can be the most powerful thing you can do.
For more thoughts on how to listen and be supportive click here!