How to support someone who is struggling with mental health
Being truthful and opening up about mental health issues can be a scary thing; for the speaker, and the listener. As far as we’ve come as a society, many taboos still exist around mental health – in personal relationships, friendship groups, families and the workplace, and most people are not given the tools to express what they are going through in times of difficulty. But by sharpening your own listening skills, increasing your capacity for empathy and sending out a message of love and acceptance to the people in your life, you can help break down the walls of silence surrounding these issues.
Here are some tips for what to say and how to act when someone shares their struggles.
Make sure you’re in a good headspace
It may seem counterintuitive, but looking out for your own mental health should always come first, because if you’re in a bad place then you’re probably not in the position to be helping others and you will likely come away from the conversation feeling more drained. If you know and trust the other person, and feel comfortable opening up to them, then ‘splitting time’ might be a good option which ensures you both get a chance to offload. Set a timer for fifteen minutes and let the other person speak, then swap roles, so that they listen to you speak for fifteen minutes. This way, you will both come away from the interaction feeling heard, supported and re-energized.
Be present and listen fully
Most people assume themselves to be good listeners, but you’d be surprised how nuanced a skill listening is, and how much practice it takes to truly master. The most important element of good listening is to be fully present. Focus on what the other person is saying, the language they use to describe what is going on in their mind, and the feelings underneath the words. Pay attention to the parts they find difficult to get out – maybe their voice begins to shake, or they cut off mid-sentence. Fully absorb what they are saying, and ignore the nagging voice in your head that is telling you what you should say next or how their situation relates to you. And another, very important thing to remember – stay off your phone! This is their time to be honest and vulnerable, and picking up your phone halfway through the conversation is extremely disrespectful.
Make eye contact and have strong body language
Even if the speaker has trouble making eye contact with you, don’t let this break your focus. Keep your eyes on them the whole time, because their facial expressions or body language can reveal a lot about what is going on beneath the surface of what they are saying. As for your own body language – face them fully, with a straight back and hands kept still in your lap or at your sides. Keep your chest lifted and breath slowly and comfortably. This will help you to stay present, and will keep them rooted in the moment. If they start to cry, you can place a hand on their shoulder or arm (if they are comfortable with this) but avoid stroking or patting. Let them cry for as long as they need to, and ignore your own discomfort; it is a privilege to be present with someone in this moment.
Don’t worry about offering solutions
When someone starts opening up about their mental health issue – particularly if it relates to a specific trauma or trigger – it’s tempting to want to ‘help’ them by trying to fix the situation they are in, or give experiential anecdotes of solutions that have worked for you in the past. Resist the urge to do this (unless they ask – more on this later). All it will do is signal to the speaker that you’re not fully listening. It can also undermine their experience, because by focusing on solutions, you’re subliminally suggesting that what they are going through is bad, and needs to end soon. It’s like saying: ‘well, once we get this problem out of the way, you can go back to normal and everything will be fine!’ It’s also less likely that someone will feel comfortable opening up to you in the future if you treat their mental health struggle as a temporary, easily fixable problem.
Make it about them, and how they are feeling
Understanding how someone is feeling is not always as simple as just listening to what they are saying, because many people struggle to put their feelings into words, or don’t have the tools to do so. Once you start building up your listening skill, you will be able to pay more attention to non-verbal clues and signals, and this will make it easier to empathise. Empathy is a powerful, life-affirming tool, but it gets misused. Many people think that empathy means saying things like: ‘I know what you’re going through, because I went through something similar…’ and then launching into a story from their own life. Again, this undermines the speaker’s experience and will only make them feel more lonely. Instead, ask questions such as: ‘how did that make you feel?’, or ‘what thought are you having right now?’, to help the speaker communicate more clearly and openly.
If you are feeling scared or uncomfortable, or like you don’t know what to say, share it. Saying ‘I can’t even think of anything to say, or imagine what you must be going through’ or expressing your own upset (when it’s appropriate, and without pulling focus from the speaker) will help to validate their experience and make them feel heard. Vulnerability is another powerful tool which can strengthen communication and deepen connection. However, don’t fall into the trap of giving run-of-the-mill verbal responses or ticks, like ‘oh my god’ or ‘uh-huh’, because this can make it seem as though you are not fully listening.
Use mirroring to increase empathy
Paying close attention to the language someone is using will help you to pick out certain words or expressions to mirror back to the person when/if there is an appropriate moment. Even something as simple as ‘That must have been so scary’, after they have used the word ‘scary’, goes a long way. If you are speaking on the phone, it might be worth keeping a pen and paper nearby to jot down anything which seems particularly significant, especially positive achievements or developments. This can also help you formulate follow-up questions.
Ask them to elaborate
Asking the speaker to expand on what they are saying both shows that you are listening fully, and helps you to gain a deeper understanding of their situation. The more specific the question, the better. Using the mirroring technique, you might ask them: ‘so when Alex asked you to take on all that extra work, how did you react?’ followed by positive reinforcements after they have given their answer, like: ‘well, it sounds like you stood up for yourself and said things that needed saying. What do you think?’
Only give advice when it is asked for
The question ‘what do you think I should do?’ can be quite intimidating, but don’t feel pressured to ‘solve’ all the speaker’s issues. In my experience on a mental health helpline, this question comes rarely; most people just call because they need someone to listen. But if you do encounter this question, first make sure you have enough information to offer a fully-considered response. Ask for more clarification and learn as much as you can about their situation. Avoid sounding too sure of yourself or like your answer is the only option. If you are sharing what has helped you in the past, make sure to add the caveat: ‘but what worked for me may not work for everybody’. Share resources, such as books, helplines or websites, so they can find their way to the outcome most suitable for them. You could even help them come up with a ‘pro/con’ list. And if you don’t feel comfortable answering the question, just tell them, but make it clear you are there to support them no matter what they decide to do.
Keeping track of themes, timelines and specific details in the speaker’s story will have a powerful effect, because you can raise them the next time you talk, making them feel heard and validated. Asking things like ‘how did it go with the driving lesson?’ or ‘what was your boss’s response to your email?’ is such a small gesture but it will show the speaker that they can trust you and that you care about them. When you are in the midst of any kind of mental health crisis, having someone you can trust, and open up to, can be the difference between life and death.
End on a supportive note
When it is time to end, make it clear that the speaker is safe, and supported. Validate their experience and thank them for sharing it with you. Saying things like: ‘I’m here for you’, ‘I really appreciate you opening up to me’ or ‘it has taken so much strength to get through what you’ve been through, and I’m proud of you’ will lessen the shameful feeling that many people have after emotionally exposing themselves to another person. Remember – being there for someone in a time of need is a privilege, and one of the deepest human experiences we can share.
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