This entry is the second post a two-part series on giving support to someone who struggles with their mental health. Part I covered fundamental concepts behind healthy support and can he found here. This post is a concrete list of dos and don’ts to consider when offering support. Before diving in, you should know that I am not a professional, but these are some tips that have worked for me.
1. Re-evaluate your assumptions
This is a preliminary step: something to do before you reach out. A given mental illness manifests differently in different people. In order to give personalized support, you need to make space for the entire person and their unique experience. People often have preconceived ideas of what a given condition feels like or how it compares to other mental illnesses (i.e. “A lot of people have it worse”). We cannot pretend to know how someone else sees the world. Listening is the only way to find out. Another common misconception is that it will be easy to seek help. Unfortunately, this may not the case due to a variety of emotional, financial or societal reasons. If you let assumptions clutter your brain, you will not see the nuances right in front of you; Compassion thrives on a blank slate.
2. Don’t fixate on the “why”
Many people—including myself—like to operate as if life follows logical guidelines. Unfortunately for us, emotions are not governed by logic and mental illnesses certainty aren’t either. When you offer someone support, you need to accept that their symptoms do not need to make perfect sense to you. All that matters is that they are real.
The tendency to wonder “why?” is often an aspect of genuine concern. However, understanding can be gained without trying to rationalize the situation. When someone is in a vulnerable state, questions like “Why did you do that?” or “Why do you think that?” can provoke feelings of defensiveness. Even with positive intent, the word “why” carries an interrogative connotation. You may want to rephrase: “did something happen to trigger that thought/emotion?” or “Can you tell me more about what lead to those emotions?” This way, there is open dialogue and no judgement.
3. Prioritize listening over advising
Have you ever opened up to someone and had them respond with their idea of an easy fix? I have and I assure you it was not healing. If someone is talking about a struggle they’ve had for a long time, you can be sure that they’ve had ample time to think of potential solutions. In some situations, offering unsolicited advice implies an underlying message: “You don’t know how to fix this, but I do”. By simply listening, you create a safe space. That’s priceless.
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to say without giving advice. In that case, just admit it! This is the harsh reality: the perfect response likely does not exist. One conversation can’t demolish a long-term struggle. It can be refreshing to hear “I don’t know what to say but that sounds really hard and I’m here for you”. It’s okay to not have a solution; in a state of vulnerability, one needs a shelter more than one needs an instruction manual.
4. Don’t forget to validate
The importance of listening is directly related to the importance of validation. One cannot feel validated without feeling understood. Therefore, step one in validation is showing that you understand what you’ve been told. This can be done by giving a brief summary: “If I understand correctly, you’re feeling _____ because _____.” This will show that you’re present and willing to enter their world. Above all else, please do not make light of the situation. Comments starting with “At least” are invalidating and come across as vapid. Instead of drawing attention to the bright side, try to further your understanding of the dark place being discussed. Healing starts when someone has taken the time to see an otherwise invisible wound.
5. Don’t promote unhealthy coping mechanisms
This one is quite self-explanatory: where there is company, there is influence. Unhealthy coping mechanisms can include substance abuse, binge drinking, or unhealthy dieting. It’s no secret that student culture often involves unhealthy habits. Socializing and having fun have positive effects on mental well-being. However, it is not a good idea to conclude a supportive conversation with “Good talk, let’s go drink!” Healthy alternatives include physical activity or sharing a hobby. At the end of the day, balance is key.
6. Accept the process
Giving thorough support is not a onetime event. This is especially true when supporting a romantic partner, close friend or family member. You might say “I’m here for you if you ever need to talk.” However, many folks will not take you up on that offer due to their fear of becoming a burden. If you are concerned about their well-being, it is likely a good idea to check in regularly. If you are committed to standing by this person, remind them that you are not going to be scared away. They are not a burden. After all, their diagnosis does not define them, it is just one aspect of who they are.
Thanks for reading!