Seeing a friend or a loved one suffer with their mental health can make you feel powerless. You might want to help make things a little bit easier for them, but not know how. Here’s some guidance on how to be there for someone going through mental health difficulties.
Learn about mental health
Start from a place of having accurate information about mental health. If your loved one has a mental health diagnosis and has shared it with you, research some of the scientific literature and testimonies of people’s lived experiences related to the diagnosis. This will lessen some of the work for your loved one as they won’t have to “teach” you everything about their diagnosis.
If your loved one does not have a diagnosis or has not shared it with you, it is still beneficial to learn generally about mental wellbeing. Understanding how factors like stress, trauma, and family history often contribute to mental health difficulties will help remind you that your loved one’s struggles are not their fault. Also, knowing the signs that suggest someone is having an extra difficult time with their mental health will be useful for you in deciding when to reach out to offer your support
Express that you care
Mental health difficulties are often an isolating experience. One of the ways that conditions like anxiety and depression manifest is by leading the person to believe that people around them dislike or don’t care about them.
Voicing your empathy for your loved one’s struggles can go a long way toward disrupting that inner narrative that they are alone. If your loved one is very stuck in their symptoms and has started seeing them as their new normal, showing that you’re concerned can plant that seed of an idea that something needs to change.
Use open-ended questions
It can be hard to open up about such a personal experience as mental health. To get the conversation going, try to use open-ended questions with your loved one – questions that can’t be answered with just yes, no, or another one word answer.
Examples of useful open-ended questions are:
- Can you describe a little bit of what it’s like to be you these days?
- What do you wish people understood about your mental health?
- How are you taking care of yourself right now?
- What can I and others do to lend you a hand in this tough time?
Don’t do too little, but don’t do too much
Psychologist and mental health advocate Dr. Pat Deegan encourages therapists and doctors to be aware of the Neglect-Overprotect Continuum. In this model, she argues clinicians shouldn’t neglect clients in areas where they are clearly in need of support, but should also not overprotect clients in areas where they are able to take action and make their own choices.
This principle is also useful to keep in mind as a friend or loved one of a person working through mental health difficulties. Let’s say a friend shares with you that they have really been struggling with depression recently, and often can’t gather the effort to put a decent meal together. It’s OK to offer to drop off some easy to prepare groceries for a few weeks until they start feeling a bit better – you’ve seen somewhere where a little boost might help them out.
Now let’s say that the same friend has started to get to a better place mentally, and wants to get involved with more meaningful things in their life to motivate them to keep taking care of themselves. They call you up because they have decided to finally ask for that promotion at work, and they want your advice.
You might have some concerns, because asking for a promotion can be a risk – it can be embarrassing if you’re turned down, and if you are awarded a new role, the transition period can be stressful. However, your friend deserves to be able to take that risk even though they sometimes experience depression. Managing depression may be one part of their lived experience, but it doesn’t mean they need to be shielded from all of life’s everyday challenges.
Encourage your friend to take the leap if they know that’s what’s right for them, and remind them that you’ll be there for them no matter what the result.
Know when to get your own help
If someone very close to you has had very difficult or long-term struggles with mental health, that can take a toll on your own emotional wellbeing. Taking care of yourself is sometimes the best way to ensure you’re able to support someone else. To learn more about if therapy could help you navigate being there for a loved one, click the button below to set up a free phone consultation – we can chat about what you and your loved one have been through, and how therapy could be a source of support for you.