When you think about someone who struggles with mental illness, who do you picture? Could it be someone you know – a friend, relative, or even a colleague? Many people don’t realize that mental health problems can affect a great number of people – and since one in five Canadians will personally experience a mental health problem or illness, chances are you know more than one of them.
And because everyone’s situation is unique, there’s no one correct way to approach them about it if you’re concerned and want to offer support. “They may be comfortable discussing their issues, or they may be more private,” says Amber Mckenzie, a psychologist with BEACON. “Whoever they are, and whatever their circumstances are, they may be in need of help.”
So, how can we offer meaningful support to those who may need it, while also taking care of ourselves? These tips will help you understand what it means to support someone with a mental health concern – something we’re all capable of with a little work!
Listen, listen, and then listen some more
This point can’t be over-emphasized – when someone wants to talk, ensure that you’re there to let them unload or vent or just open up to.
“An empathetic and kind ear can make a big difference to someone who is struggling,” suggests Mckenzie. “When you couple this technique with a question like ‘What can I offer you to help, and how can I support you,’ you’ll let them know that they can trust you.”
There’s no such thing as an easy fix
Understandably, when you care about someone who is struggling, you want to try and make things better.
“Even if you’re doing everything right and being supportive,” says Mckenzie, “you might not see the change you were hoping for – we have to learn how to manage our expectations in this scenario.”
Take care of yourself as well
Supporting someone with mental health struggles can be a difficult task, which is why it’s also important to check in on yourself. Try to notice how you’re feeling – are you irritable, overwhelmed, or tired? Are you concerned that you just can’t listen anymore?
“If you are feeling any of these things, that’s perfectly normal,” offers Mckenzie. “But you may need to step back and reevaluate by saying ‘Okay, so I’ve tried these things and maybe they aren’t working; what’s a different way I can approach this?’”
Conversely, if you’re pressing on, it’s important to find time for small comforts – a cup of tea, some time with a good book, or even discussing the situation (while protecting the identity of the person you’re trying to help) with someone else.
Know when you’re out of your depth
There’s no shame in this at all! At some point, it may feel as if you’re overwhelmed by all the questions aimed at you, and you don’t know how to respond. Or you’re not seeing any forward momentum. Or your own mental health is suffering.
“At this point, it’s wise to recommend that they explore the option of seeking professional support,” adds Mckenzie. “You can bring up web resources that may help, or you can ask them if they’ve considered additional assistance.”
Do be mindful of whether or not they’re a danger to themselves. If you’re concerned about this, seeking out professional support is in order – this could be psychiatric services, 911, or a trip to the emergency room depending on the severity of the situation.
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Supporting someone with a mental illness takes a lot of patience, understanding, and perception. It is, however, within all of us to help someone in need.
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