When a friend or family member expresses to you that they are struggling with a mental health disorder, you may feel as if you do not know what to say or worse yet, that you will say the wrong thing. Unfortunately, societal stigmas have made it difficult for those living with mental disorders to receive support. In an ideal world, we would all be proactive in looking out for one another. Even well-intentioned family members or friends don’t take the time to check in, sometimes due to ignorance around mental health topics, other times because they’re preoccupied with their own concerns. Although it is true that the wrong words can potentially hurt, learning how to provide comfort and support to your loved ones by saying the right words is not as difficult as it may seem. Whether it is a severe mental illness or the beginning signs of emotional stress, you can play a positive role in supporting your love done.
1. Let your loved one or friend share as much or as little as they wish
Let your friend or family member lead the discussion at his or her own pace and actively listen without passing judgment. Do not put pressure on them to tell you anything they are not ready to talk about as talking can take a lot of trust and courage and you may be the first person they have been able to talk to about this.
2. Don’t try to diagnose or second-guess their feelings
You probably are not a medical expert and, even if you are, you are most likely biased towards the individual and the situation. Therefore while you may be happy to talk and offer support, you cannot take the role of a therapist or a trained mental health counselor. Try not to make assumptions about what is wrong or jump in too quickly with your diagnosis or solutions as this can cause more harm than good.
3. Ask open-ended questions
Ask, “Why don’t you tell me how you are feeling?” rather than “I can see you are feeling very low.” Try to keep your language neutral. Give the person time to answer and try not to grill them with too many questions.
4. Practice active listening without passing judgment
Repeat what they have said back to them to ensure you have understood it. You don’t have to agree with what they are saying, but by showing you know how they feel, you are letting them know you respect their feelings.
5. Avoid catchy phrases that portray superficial meaning
“Phrases such as ‘cheer up’ and ‘I’m sure it’ll pass’ don’t help. Try to have a non-judgmental conversation. Tell them you understand they can’t ‘snap out of it,’ and you’re there to support them.”
6. If you are concerned about your loved one, be honest with your feelings
Contrary to popular belief, asking someone about suicide or self-harm does not increase their chances that they will attempt suicide. If you are seriously concerned about your loved one’s mental state than tell them. Ask about how they are feeling and express why you are concerned. If you think they need to be hospitalized, then do not be afraid to call 911.
7. Avoid falling into the role of ‘fixer’ and ‘savior.’
No matter how much you love someone, it cannot save him or her.
8. Continue to include your loved one in your plans
Including your friend or family member in your ideas, continue to invite him or her without being overbearing, even if your friend or family member resists your invitations.