Supporting someone who is experiencing a tough time with mental health symptoms should be easy, right? All you have to do is be there for them and tell them what to do to get better! Wrong! If someone is choosing to come to you for support when they are vulnerable in their mental illness, it is important to know how to effectively support them. There are things you may be doing/saying that can inadvertently make things more difficult for the sufferer. Understanding some key things to do and not to do can really help in supporting someone when they really need you the most.
Here are the top 5 things I practice as a certified Peer Support Specialist when supporting and working with clients who live with mental health disorders.
Living with mental health symptoms can be tormenting as well as isolating. Often when symptoms flare up, shame, stigma, and guilt can keep sufferers from reaching out for support. When they do, it’s important to listen to how they feel and what their needs are. Listening isn’t as easy as it sounds. Many of us naturally listen just enough to formulate what we want to say back. To be completely present and listen is to give someone space and time to formulate their thoughts with a safe, soft place to land. Listening to someone in distress validates their experience, helps them unload the emotional turmoil, and creates trust which can help relieve the isolation.
There is nothing more relieving for me when I am struggling and scared in my own symptoms than to have someone give me the floor to talk and express how I’m feeling for as long as it takes.
Listening isn’t easy and it takes practice, but you can become good at it and become an integral part of someone’s support system and recovery journey.
Want to practice your listening skills? Grab a friend and role play! Have your friend sit with you and talk about something they are interested in for a specific amount of time. Don't comment, don't chime in, don't hijack the conversation. Just listen. Just be present. Allow yourself to sit in the silence. It's scary at first, but you'll get the hang of it!!!
2. Halt your Advice
"People aren't asking for your advice, they are really only asking for your approval"
Support is not about advice, especially when it comes to someone’s journey with mental health. This is important for a couple reasons. First, everyone’s journey to recovery is different. What works for one person may not work for the next. In fact, things that work for you may be detrimental to the next person. As tempting as it is to want to help someone else with their symptoms, it is irresponsible to tell people what to do just because it worked for you. Leave that to the professionals.
Secondly, you could be putting yourself and the person you are advising in harm’s way by giving advice when you are not a professional. It may seem easy to tell someone what they ‘should’ do, but if that person takes your advice and adverse effects happen as a result, it can put you in a position of liability. There is often more than meets the eye with mental health symptoms and experiences, so not knowing or understanding all the facts with someone else doesn’t put you in a position to be able to advise them.
While it seems like an appropriate opportunity to give someone advice when they are struggling, it is important to help support them in figuring out what works for them in their own knowledge and experience. If needed, consult with a professional to help navigate situations if the person in need cannot use their own coping skills and strategies.
If you are someone who is always doling out unwanted advice and wants to start cutting back, pay attention to how many times you start a sentence with 'I would' or 'You should'. If you are starting majority of your sentences with these phrases, reread the above tip on how to 'Listen' and start practicing with friends. It takes practice!!
3. Ask what you can do to support them
Just like wanting to give advice, it isn’t uncommon to just want to help someone feel better by doing what you think should be done. But again, what works for you may not work for everyone. Often people just need to be listened to and allowed to feel emotion in order to feel relief.
Often when supporting individuals in heightened symptoms, I will ask them what I can do to support them. At first, they may say 'I DON'T KNOW, I JUST WANT TO FEEL BETTER!' That is the most tempting moment to dole out advice. No one wants to see someone hurting! I resist the urge to advise and I continue to ask questions to keep them talking so I can be present for them. More often than not, just by letting someone release their emotions, they are able to find within them what will help to make them feel better moving forward. It is always important as a supporter to help empower the person struggling so they can remember next time they were able to use their own strength and knowledge to persevere.
When I am struggling and my support asks me what I need, it forces me to remember that there are things I can ask for or do on my own to take charge of my recovery. Ultimately, that is what we all want as supporters is to help support others in finding their own way.
When someone says they don't know what you can do to support them, you can open up the door for them to find out what will help by asking them questions. What has helped you in the past? Would you like to be alone? Do you just want me to sit with you for a while? Would you like to go for a walk? Would you like me to take the floor and talk for a bit until you are ready to talk? Again, these all focus on what the individual wants/needs even if they are unsure what it is at the time. Sometimes having the freedom to figure out what they do need is incredibly empowering.
4. Ask what you can do to support them moving forward
When crisis happens for someone, it often feels urgent and imperative to move through it and find peace. But often when that happens, the fear and anxiety of it happening again can surface. If you have been able to support someone through a tough time, chances are you could be someone they would trust if it were to happen again. Offering your time and energy if/when that person is in crisis again can absolutely help ease the anxiety they may feel about a recurrence. Ask them what they need you to do in order to support them moving forward. They may say to not check on them at all or to check in with them in a few days. It is very important to honor their requests.
When I experience a time of struggle, I will tell my support what to do and what not to do. Sometimes I want time and space from when I had extreme symptoms and I don’t want to be reminded to revisit them by someone calling everyday checking on me. Sometimes I feel alone and ask my support to check in on me everyday for the next week. Regardless of what I need, my support system honors my requests and it helps validate for me their support as well as their respect and trust.
A huge exception to this tip is if someone is expressing a desire for suicide or has a plan for suicide, it is imperative to seek help for them even if they are resisting. Please call the local/national suicide hotline, the police department if necessary, or take a person expressing suicidal intentions to the nearest mental health center or emergency room.
It is often just as important to ask someone what NOT to do as much as what to do. I will often ask clients if there are things that I should not ask or talk about moving forward. After tough situations, individuals may not want to revisit or remember things they said or felt moving forward until they are ready. I always honor a client's request to not bring up certain topics or situations if they may be detrimental for them moving forward. However, I do encourage them to discuss trauma or crisis situations with their therapist in order to process.
5. Make a follow up plan to check-in
To emphasize the previous point made, it is entirely appropriate when supporting someone through a tough time with mental health symptoms to ask when a good time is to follow up with them and then to follow through. It builds trust when someone is able to disclose their feelings/struggles and then know you are still there afterward if they need you.
A good rule of thumb when following up with someone is to ask them how they are feeling and if there is anything you can do to support them in where they are now. They may need you to listen again, or they may be feeling better and not wanting to revisit what happened previously. It is important to allow them to lead the conversation.
When creating a plan, you may feel uncertain about when or how to check in on them, so ask that, too! Make sure you get all the details of what will work for them for follow up support. If they are not sure, ask questons. Will text be easier? Should we schedule a call? What time of day works for you? Etc. Asking specifics helps the person know you are serious about supporting them and can help gain trust and respect. As always, it is important to honor what the sufferer asks in following up.
Often after I experience tough days with symptoms and getting support, I feel embarrassed. I know there is no need to feel that way, but I can’t always help it. When I feel this way, it feels unproductive to be reminded of what happened by my support system. What I appreciate from them is a quick check in and allowing me to direct what needs to happen then and moving forward. Another request for a check-in I feel is always appropriate, and I decide if that is needed when asked. It is always a relief when my support system honors what I request.
When following up with a client who has experienced crisis or tough times with symptoms, I often ask them if there is anything specific I should ask them when we speak the next time. I always remind myself it is not my job to hold people accountable for taking meds, going to appointments, or following through with coping skills, so I never bring those things up in follow up calls unless they specifically ask me to address them.
I find being in a position to support individuals with their mental health is such an honor and privilege. However, it is not always easy and I still make mistakes which are always a painful reminder that supporting someone is more about what THEY need vs what I think they need. I use these 5 tips daily in my peer support practice, and they help remind me to keep sessions about the client and not about my ego!
If you find yourself in a position of being able to support someone through their mental health journey, I hope you consider it an honor as well! Having someone trust us enough with some of the most shameful, embarrassing symptoms of mental illness says so much about our ability to be trusted by the sufferer. And being able to be a consistent, long-term support can help tremendously in someones mental health journey.
What do you think about these tips? What do you find helpful in supporting others?