How do you support someone who’s struggling with mental problems?
We are only beginning to talk more openly about mental struggles, and there are still many, many misconceptions about it. And often it results in people with the best intentions making the situation worse, by trying to help.
So here are a few do s and don’t s, so you can be there for your loved ones when they need you the most… And you can better ask for help when you need it.
This article is for you if you’re struggling and want to help people around you help you better, and be there for you; and it is for you if you know someone who is struggling and want to be there for them and support them in the best way you can.
On helping friends, silly music videos, unsolicited advices, and presence ...
A few days ago I saw a post that felt really wrong. It was sharing a music video with the words : “Therapy: Expensive; Video that can cure depression:Free”
The video was a party song, in the line of “Yeah it’s Friday and let’s party all through the weekend and be happy”. What’s wrong with that? Nothing… Except it has nothing to do with curing depression!
Silly video like this can lift your mood and make you feel good on the spot if you are feeling a bit blue. It is not going to have long-lasting effect on your anxiety, depression, or any serious mental struggle.
Actually, if you are struggling right now and saw this kind of post, and felt worse afterwards, you are normal. You are a human, there’s nothing wrong with you. Yes, people will comment to share how it made their day, and that it was just what they needed to hear… And they are not in the same space as you are. They don’t have the same needs. But sadly the belief that depression can be shifted by watching a silly video is still well-spread.
So here are a few things you can do to really help your friend, and one big tip on how to handle this.
Don’t assume you understand exactly what they are going through, but instead…
Or, the “I know exactly how you feel” syndrome. Unless you’ve been through the same thing, which probably you haven’t, no, you don’t know exactly how they feel.
So instead, ask questions and really listen: “Do you want to talk about it? Tell me more? What do you mean, panic attack/anxiety/whatever they just mentioned?”. Even if you think you absolutely get what they are sharing, ask questions. Be curious about it, genuinely curious.
Don’t give unsolicited advice, but instead…
Maybe listening to your friend, you get an idea of something that could help them: “Oh, you really should go watch a comedy / do yoga / do meditation / try acupuncture.” or “Have you tried breathwork? I just started this class and it’s been amazing to calm me down.”
First of, sometimes all we need is someone to talk openly to, someone who will listen to what we’ve got to say and not shy away.
Second, chances are they already tried a lot of things and know much more about it than you do.
Just resist the urge to give an advice. And absolutely avoid to give any unsolicited advice.
If you really think you have an advice that you that could truly help them, instead of giving an advice, orient the conversation in that direction and listen to how they respond.
Ask them what they need
If you still believe this piece of advice would be a game-changer for them, ask them first if it’s OK to share: “I have an idea that I think could help you with that. Do you want to hear it?” And if they say no, respect it and shut up.
Again I would be extremely careful with advices, but if you think you can help, you might want to try this instead of sharing the first thing that comes to mind: Ask them instead! Again, be curious, and ask: “How can I help? What can I do to help you?”
Let them tell you what they need, not the other way around. And you might be surprised by the answer.
Don’t play the cheer-leader, instead…
I know it deeply hurts to see someone you love hurting. So you might want to do anything you can to cheer them up. It might not be a bad idea always, but there is a big but. Most of the time, people are doing the situation worse, not better, in doing so. It is exactly the same example I gave you at the beginning of this article.
And here we have to take an honest look in the mirror: Why are we trying to cheer them up? So that they feel better, or so that we feel better?
Many times, this comes from a place of not wanting to witness pain, and using humour or seemingly uplifting comment to escape this conversation.
Another way that plays, is in cheering them up by belittling the situation: “If you just would do this tiny thing, you will feel so much better.” or “I hear you, and there are so much worse things going on in the world…” or also “And Bob is doing so much worse, have you heard?”
All of the above might be true, it doesn’t change their specific situation. It just sends the message that you are not comfortable with them feeling bad. So they won’t show it… But they will still feel it.
Be there for them, and let them know you are
So instead, remind them that you are here for them, and you are not judging them for feeling bad, for being in that situation, you are acknowledging they are human. And they are hurting and it’s OK, that’s what humans do sometimes.
How to be with someone who is struggling without being creepy
Now let me share you what happened to someone close to me, who has cancer. He got a phone call, by a very well-meaning person, that was just plain scary. Basically asking “Are you OK?”, but with the intonation of “Don’t die just yet, please”. My friend told me:”Thank God I was feeling good that day, because it would have made me feel like shit. Luckily I was in a good place so I could take it with a bit of humor and see that person was just not comfortable with that.”
And as always, it was made with the best intentions in mind. And that’s the whole point of this video. We really want to help. But it is difficult to see someone hurting. It’s difficult to know what to do.
Well the best thing you can do, is treat them like a normal person. Even if they might be feeling really bad, or even dying. Even if at the moment of your conversation, they represent something really difficult for you to face, they are still a human being. So treat them like this.
So instead of are you OK, ask them:”I know you’re going through difficult times, how are you feeling? How are you are you doing?”
Let them tell you how they feel, how they are.
When it’s OK to cheer them up
Talking of treating them as a normal person… Something really hard when you’re struggling long term is at some point it becomes all about your struggles.
Every time someone sees you, they will be like: “Are you OK? How are you feeling?” And sometimes you just want to talk about something else.
There is a subtle balance to find between the need, both for the person being in the struggle, and the person wanting to help, the need to talk about this, but at the same time, you also need to not only talk about this. And then just making a joke with you is really good, or going for a walk or doing something together.
Actually if you’ve got the gut for this, black humor can help. Like my friend with cancer, answering to someone asking where will be his next travel destination:”The hereafter?”, with a smile. Not for everyone though, so in doubt, don’t.
It is all about your presence, more than your words
I could go on with dos and don’ts, but this, I feel, are the most important.
And even more crucial than any of these is actually the principle at the base of everything I just said: More important than everything you say is your intention, your presence. From what place, what state are you talking? Your intentions say it louder than any words.
Let’s take just a tiny and very simple example: “I’m sorry.” In my experience, “I’m sorry” comes mainly from two intentions:
- compassion:”I’m sorry.”, meaning “I really care for you, and this situation sucks. I’m sorry that you have to go through it.”
- I’ve heard also mean pity:”I’m sorry.”, meaning “I’m so scared by what you are going through right now, I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes and I actually would rather not hear about it because I’m afraid of it and I feel so uncomfortable that I don’t know how to react.”
Your intentions say it louder than any words and the person at the end of it will perceive it, whatever you say.
Don’t ask questions you don’t want to hear the answer to.
So what are you comfortable with? And what are you not comfortable with? And it’s OK, it’s absolutely OK not to be comfortable with that, with sickness, with hurting, it’s absolutely OK. But be clear with it and don’t ask questions you don’t want to hear the answer to.
I know that one really well. My father suicided. Over the years, I had a lot of people ask me how he died. And after a while, I could almost 100% tell if the person was OK with hearing my answer or not. And I can tell you sometimes I wish they didn’t ask, because of the way they went really weird when I told them. (so sometimes I changed my answer, as your friend will, but that opens another can of worms)
Vulnerability is a two-way street
So only ask questions, you are OK with whatever the answer is. And if you’re not comfortable with what’s going on, what your friends share, be honest about it:”Actually I don’t know much about depression / panic attack / cancer / whatever they are going through.”
Again, they will sense it anyway, so by being honest and telling:”I don’t know what you’re going through”, and maybe even admitting that it scares you if it does, you are doing everyone a favor.
You’re actually telling:”I don’t know how, but I want to be here for you. I care for you and I want to be here even if I’m scared that I don’t know what to say.”
If You are struggling right now, help your friends
If you’re struggling and had people around you be clumsy and not be in that space of venerability. Maybe you were hurt by how they were around you.
Remember that they probably had the best intentions, even though the execution was terrible. And also that we’re not taught in our society how to deal with psychological pain at all; even less with death. So help them!
Be really clear and be really realistic with what you want and what you need. It will help them relax with you around.
If you’re hurting, and you know or not how to get better but you don’t want an advice, tell them:”I don’t need any advice, but I would love to share something with you.”
And let them the choice. That might be difficult for you, but let them the choice of hearing you or not that day. We all have moments were we are more or less resourced, and sometime dealing with yourself is the best we can do. So if they don’t have the bandwidth to be with this hurt, let them say no that time, and be grateful for all the times they were a support.
I know it’s easier said than done, but accept that not everyone is in a place of being a support, being a resource, find other things to do with these friends.
And actually, sometimes shifting roles is great to. Remember they are your friends, not your caretaker. You need both.
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Stay tuned for the next episode, à bientôt. 😉
(Intro music for the podcast: “Tiny people”, by Alexei De Bronhe )