I’m really lucky to have a very supportive husband who does everything he can to help when I’m struggling with my mental health. He seems to know exactly what to do and what to say and, although he will admit that life is hard for him too when I’m going through a period of difficulty (albeit only saying this when I’m feeling well again) he works tirelessly to look after me and make things easier, whilst at the same time, maintaining a busy full time job. With this is mind and knowing that most of us will have a partner, friend, family member or colleague who has mental health issues at some point, here are 7 ways that you can offer much needed support.
Ask ‘How are you? Twice.
Most of us will be able to sense if someone we know is having difficulties. They may seem a little quiet, look washed out or just not quite their usual self. The ‘Ask twice’ campaign recognises that most of us, when asked ‘How are you?’ tend to offer up the standard response of ‘I’m fine’ or ‘I’m okay’, even when we’re really not. Asking a second time can make all the difference as it can let the person know that you’re really interested in their welfare. It’s up to them whether or not they choose to open up to you, but at least you’ve let them know that you are there if they need you.
Make time to listen
Before you make the effort to ask someone if they’re really okay, it’s a good idea to think carefully about when is a good time for a mental health and wellbeing conversation. If they do choose to open up, it’s important that you both have a lengthy window for a chat and an appropriate space to too. Picking a quiet place with no distractions shows that you are seriously interested in what they have to say and also helps the person know that they won’t be overheard by others.
Remember, some people may never have spoken about their mental health before so might be worried about opening up and sharing how they feel. Others, like me, may have shared their thoughts and feelings with a variety of people including therapists and doctors. They may also have already received a diagnosis from a health professional. In this case, they may just need a listening ear, some reassurance or even a hug (according to my reading, a cautious cuddle is possible from 17th May when this post goes live!). In making a judgement about what the individual needs good listening skills are essential. Some basics include:
- be patient and listen really carefully – lots of eye contact, supportive gestures such as a nod or supportive words such as ‘take your time’.
- avoid second guessing – try not to jump in too quickly or make assumptions about what the person is saying
- offer phrases which validate what the person is saying e.g. ‘that must be really hard’ rather than offering advice or solutions – don’t try to fix them!
- avoid phrases which dismiss the person’s feelings or suggest that they can easily change how they feel e.g. don’t say things like ‘you’ll be fine’, ‘I know how you feel’, ‘everyone feels this way’, ‘it could be worse’ or ‘cheer up’.
- use open ended questions e.g. ‘is there something I can do to help?’ ‘are there any signs I can look out for which might tell me you’re struggling?’
- paraphrase – repeat back what they’ve said in similar words so you can check you understand fully
- offer them reassurance – remind them that they have the strength to get through this, they have a support network to help them and that thing are going to be okay.
Read up on the person’s particular health condition
Everyone’s experience of mental health difficulties are different but there are some common symptoms to look out for and read up on. There’s lots of information available online and good places to start include the NHS Website and Mind. For specific conditions, you can also check out dedicated websites such as Anxiety UK, Bipolar UK, PTSD UK and ADHD UK. You might want to find out for yourself or you might want to share these resources with the individual so they can learn more about their diagnosis or discover self help strategies. There are also online communities which enable both of you to ‘meet’ others to share experiences, stories and tips for managing particular conditions.
Offer practical help
With some mental health conditions, day-to-day living becomes really difficult. Offering support such as getting shopping, making a nutritious meal, giving them a lift to a medical appointment or doing a household chore for them can be a big help. Other support you could offer includes working with them to make a list of things to share with the doctor (or questions to ask), reading literature about mental health conditions either in booklets or online and helping them to make notes, developing a bank of self help strategies to try.
Regularly check in with them
After the initial chat with the person, make sure it doesn’t end there. Someone who is depressed, anxious or struggling in some other way is very likely to withdraw from social contact with friends and family, but this kind of isolation can make things worse. Checking in with them regularly and occasionally suggesting short, one-to-one get togethers such as a quick coffee or a brief walk around a local park reminds them that you care and are still thinking about them. They might turn down the face-to-face contact if they’re feeling really bad but at least they will know that you’re there.
Even if you don’t see the person regularly, you can still show them you’re thinking about them by sending regular texts asking them how they’re doing or inviting them for coffee, a walk in the park or something similar. You might only get a few lines back or sometimes no reply at all but remember that your words are being read and are helpful.
Support them in getting further help
Depending on where the person is in their mental health journey, this might be offering to go with them when they visit their GP, looking into different treatment options or going online to find out more about a particular condition and self help strategies which are recommended. You could even offer to do something together which might help, such as going for regular walks in the sunshine, attending yoga classes or going to a support group.
Don’t forget to look after yourself too
Listening to and supporting someone who has a mental health difficulty can be challenging and at times very draining. You may find yourself getting upset or struggle to cope with seeing someone you love having such a tough time. If you live with the person, you might also be taking on the majority of or all household activities and chores such as cooking, cleaning, tidying and child care. In order to look after someone else as much as you can, it’s really important to find some time to take care of yourself both physically and emotionally. If you are adopting the role of caregiver when the person is unwell, you’re likely to need to have regular breaks where you spend some time alone or with others. And remember to set some boundaries between yourself and the person you’re looking after so that as well as having some space, they’re reminded that you have personal needs and limits too.
I really hope you’ve found today’s post useful. Figures suggest that about 1 in 4 people experience mental health problems every year and the lockdown restrictions which have been in place during 2020 and 2021 have made things particularly difficult for a lot of us. Therefore, it’s likely that at least one of your immediate family, close friends or colleagues may be finding things hard right now and could benefit from your help and support.