By Bethany Lock
According to the NHS, 1 in 4 people struggle with mental health problems each year. Bearing this in mind, it is likely that either ourselves or someone you know will struggle with their mental health at some point. Therefore, it's important we talk about and ask about each other’s mental health in order to support our friends and family well. But what if someone close to you is in fact struggling with depression, anxiety or another mental health challenge? What do you do? What do you say? It’s easy to feel awkward, helpless and unequipped to support someone with their mental health but don’t lose hope. There are several small things you can do to help and support your loved ones through whatever they're facing. Below are 3 simple yet effective do's and 3 don’ts for supporting someone with mental health:
Allowing someone to talk about what’s going through their mind is a crucial part of helping them to not feel alone. Being a safe space where they can offload may not erase the issue, but it can often lighten the load of carrying the burden themselves. We’ve all at some point had an issue or a challenge we needed to process or get off our chest – sometimes you just need to get it out in order to feel better. Usually, the best people to facilitate this process are those who are skilled listeners. So, how can we do it well? Active listening involves giving someone your full attention and time, probing with open questions and reinstating your understanding (Levitt, 2001).
Giving someone your full attention shows that you care and can look like: putting your phone away when you're speaking to them or giving them undistracted eye contact. Prioritising listening to them in this way communicates that their feelings are important and they are worth your time. Open questions are good conversation starters to help you hear them out without making any assumptions. For example, saying “How have you been feeling lately?” is much better than “I’ve noticed you’ve been a bit low recently?” as it doesn’t jump to any conclusions prematurely and encourages them to give more than a one word answer. To reinstate your understanding, paraphrasing what that person has just said and asking for elaboration can be useful. For example, after they have spoken, you could say “Am I right in saying that you’ve felt quite alone and unmotivated lately? If so, how long have you felt like that?”. Simple questions like these show that you have been listening and that you understand where they are coming from whilst allowing them space to share more.
These three traits of a good active listener can make sure the person feels heard, valued and cared for.
As humans, we have an internal need to know we are loved, accepted and valued by those around us. Therefore, communicating that we accept our friends in their best and worst states is important. What we do and say contributes to the person’s sense of being loved and accepted and so we need to be mindful of what message our words and actions portray. For example, not criticising but saying affirming things such as “I’m sorry you’re feeling like that”, “I care about what you’re going through and am here for you” could make a big difference to someone who is struggling. Matching your actions with your words will help show your sincerity. Including that person in social activities and not treating them any different to how you would normally, can help them feel accepted as they are. It also communicates that their mental health struggles do not affect your investment in the friendship.
A famous Maya Angelou quote can be a helpful reminder: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I remember a time when I was heading to a free jazz event in the evening and found out that my friend had experienced a panic attack the night before and was struggling recently. So I immediately decided to cancel my plans, buy some ice cream and have a chill movie night with her instead to make sure she felt loved and cared for in that moment. I've had similar times where friends have done this for me and it's left me feeling loved and that I mattered. So if you don’t know what to say or do to communicate love and acceptance, think to yourself what would make you feel loved and accepted and make a judgement call as to whether that, or something similar, would work in this situation.
Sometimes people just need to be asked the right question at the right time. Once you’ve listened to how they have been feeling initially and helped them to feel loved and accepted in the moment, regularly checking in with them can make all the difference. Maybe it's sending a message frequently of “how are you feeling since we last spoke?” or a coffee meet-up in your diary every month is what's needed. Ask your friend, “how can I best help you through this?”, “What questions do you find helpful for me to ask you regularly?” or “what things do you need me to help keep you accountable for?”.
Mental health struggles usually take time and are not over in one night. So, speaking about it regularly and putting small changes in place can make the journey easier. The person might just need that extra encouragement or nudge to go see their GP, take their medication, practice self-care or go for a walk. Loyally walking alongside the person over the next few weeks and months whilst checking in with them throughout the highs and lows will surely make a significantly positive impact to their journey and overcoming their challenges.
Try to fix-it
It’s not your job to solve their problems or to tell them directly how to live their life. Although helping someone figure out what positive actions or steps could be useful for them, telling them what to do can often be unhelpful and actually make the situation worse. It may lead them to put up a guard towards you and not feel able to process their struggles with you in the future. Although it may seem really clear to you what the solution is or what they need to do, mental health challenges are complex and don’t usually have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ quick solution. It's also important to remember that the person is more likely to overcome their challenges if they work through and process, then problem-solve solutions and positive change themselves, rather than taking an approach you've suggested.
Expecting them to be better within a short period of time can put pressure on them and make them feel more anxious. Supporting someone with mental health problems can often look like taking 3 steps forward and then 4 steps back. It can mean having similar conversations and going over the same issues again and again, and that’s okay. Being a good supporter to them during this time means sticking with them even if their mental health journey can feel a bit of a rollercoaster.
Do it alone
It’s not your job, nor will it be beneficial to either of you, to take all of their burdens on your shoulders. If they need professional help then work with them in finding the best option. If you need support or advice yourself then speak to a trusted person who can direct you to the right next steps if you're unsure of what’s best to do. Although it's important to be trustworthy and keep what they say confidential, do not promise to keep it a secret or that you won't ever tell anyone as sometimes the situation can worsen and you have a duty to inform someone for the wellbeing, welfare and safety of yourself and that person.
You can read more about specific mental health topics and how to positively handle difficult situations here.
Levitt, D.H., 2002. Active listening and counsellor self-efficacy: Emphasis on one microskill in beginning counsellor training. The clinical supervisor, 20(2), pp.101-115.