How to Help Someone in Struggle: Unpacking the 'How'
I have a theory.
Maybe it's idealistic, but I truly believe that people have the best intentions when it comes to wanting to help others, the problem is, they don't always know how.
I've ended up having a lot of conversations in the last year with others about this massive topic that is Mental Health. Each time, the above belief gets more validation. I hear it all the time, people tell me that their friend, loved one, partner, neighbour, whoever is struggling with their mental health and they just don't know what to do to be helpful. Often times they tell me they don't even know how to talk to them about it or that they are afraid to bring it up in conversation so even worse, they avoid it.
Each time I walk away from these conversations, part of me is frustrated because I want to scream "it's not that complicated, just be there for them, support them, love them, accept them and ask them what they think they may need". As much as I can hear the pain and discouragement in their voice because they feel so lost on what to do, all I can think about is the pain and everything else that the individual struggling might be feeling; that's the person I relate to.
How many of us are either living with, or know someone who is living with mental health challenges, illness or addictions? I bet almost all of you are putting your hand up.
I easily forget how difficult it can be to support someone who is struggling. I've played, and continue to play this role for loved ones, and yes, it's fucking hard. I'm totally guilty of imposing my beliefs and assumptions of what I think that person should do to help themselves.
This is the problem.
So many of us want to help and want to 'fix it' but so few of us are willing and able to take a step back from what we think is the right answer and instead, consider that maybe we don't know what's best. Maybe our approach to helping is actually causing more hurt. Maybe we need to consider that we need to shift something in our own approach and communication to allow space for the person struggling to explore what they might need.
For anyone reading this who might be thinking, "Huh, yeah, maybe this is me", don't worry, it's likely all of us. We could all use a little more practice in what it means to be self-aware. So, in an effort to crack open this conversation and unpack the concept of how we can help, here are some of the simple things I've discovered I needed from others to support my recovery (because I can only speak to my experience):
1. Non-judgement: let's face it, we are all human and we all judge.
Hurtful: When people have judged me for my inability to be, do or act a certain way because I am not well.
Helpful: Check your judgements about me or my health at the door, find a way to put them aside, and just be there. I need you to take me for who I am, good, bad and ugly. Accept what I am experiencing as my truth, don't question it or try to diminish it. Just trust that it is what I am going through.
2. Compassion - Trust - Respect: Pretty self explanatory.
We all need to practice more compassion, for self and for others. If I confide in you, please respect how difficult and painful it is for me to speak my truth and that I am choosing to trust you with these feelings. Don't share my story unless I've said it's ok to share with others because it's not your story to tell. Don't make my decisions for me or without my knowledge if I am in a space where I am capable to be part of that conversation. Trust that what I am sharing is my truth and respect that I have a right to choose my own path for wellbeing and recovery, even if you disagree with my choices or if you would do it differently.
3. To Be Heard: We spend a lot of time driving home the message of 'let's talk about it', but how about we try listening.
Hurtful: Being constantly told what I 'should' be doing and not being asked what I think I might need, even if I don't necessarily know the answer. There is nothing worse than when someone thinks they are making a helpful suggestion like 'why don't you go to that support group', sure sounds simple enough right? Well, it's not. What I need is for you to understand how overwhelming and terrifying it feels to even think about stepping foot into a support group. Please stop simplifying all the things I should be doing because when you are ill, even making a phone call can be impossible.
Helpful: What I have found to be the most helpful is when someone has held space for me to be heard. Instead of telling me to simply go to the meeting, how about asking me "what can I do to help you explore this option if it's something you want?". I need someone who is able to sit with me through the tears, anger and even silence. We get so uncomfortable with silence but I can tell you first hand, that having the space to sit in silence with someone supportive has allowed me to share some of my most painful thoughts and feelings.
4. Empathy: Please stop trying to 'silver-line' things
Hurtful: When I express I am having a really hard day and can't give you a reason, and in response, you tell me 'At least tomorrow is a new day' or 'At least the sun is out'.
Helpful: When I express I am having a bad day and you simply say to me 'That's ok. I am here to support you through it'. Even if you don't understand what I am going through, I'm sure you can relate to the emotions it brings forward. You connecting to that emotion is what allows you to show me empathy instead of sympathizing.
5. Safety: This is a big one. The only time I have ever opened up to someone is when I feel completely safe confiding in them. If you are practicing any of the above examples, the safety will follow. Having safe relationships has allowed me to reach out to those individuals in times of need, no matter how dark of a space I may be in. I need to feel safe to share with you my most painful feelings and know that you will be ok to hear them and explore them with me. By creating safety in relationships, we keep the lines for conversation open.
6. Room to 'Fail': Understand that change doesn't happen overnight
Trying to create change is hard. If I try to step forward in my recovery, I need the room to be able to fall down and tumble backwards. I need that to be ok. Setting expectations for me to never fail only makes me feel worse when I do. Tell me failing or falling down is part of growing. Tell me that if I fall and get back up, that's all that matters. Meet me where I am today and support me through the process (as long as it may be) of getting to the next step. Change is not linear so give me space to move through it with fluidity.
This might be a lot to digest, or maybe you've read the above and think this is all common sense, but in reality we all need to work on the way we communicate with one another. By trying to embody all, or any of the above, next time you are looking to support someone, you might surprise yourself at how differently the conversation can look or how someone may open up.
So take it or leave it, either way, consider it because I choose to believe we all are doing the best we can and that's what I need you to believe I'm doing- The.Best.I.Can.