Last week was Suicide Prevention Week. We discussed how important it is to talk about it and the way stigma can prevent us from doing so. Being an open and safe space for conversations about mental health and mental illness is a powerful way to combat that stigma. This week I would like to help with some concrete tips for doing this. Here are some pointers for how to respond when someone discloses mental health challenges or a mental illness.
1) Thank them for trusting you: Showing gratitude for someone’s trust and candidness reinforces that trust. Building a positive rapport within the context of that conversation is so important, even if this is someone you are already close with. They are potentially sharing a part of themselves with you that you weren’t previously privy to, or that very few people get to share with them.
2) Remain non-judgmental: It is key to drop any judgment we may have and approach the conversation from a place of empathy. Judgement creates a barrier between the speaker and the listener and closes our minds off to understanding and relating to what they are sharing. We cannot know what it is like to live inside someone else’s mind. Only they know that. Judging is unhelpful, harmful and counterproductive.
3) Meet them where they are: By this I mean meet them where they are emotionally. Do not force or speed up their path through processing their emotions. It can be counterproductive to jump to being solution focused when someone is still in their emotional mind. That being said, action is sometimes eventually required but it is important not to push someone there. Be there for what they are feeling, empathize with their experience. Sometimes the world feels dark and being told that there is hope and everything is OK can alienate someone.
4) Ask them what you should know: If this person wants your support, ask them what information they want you to know, what information would be helpful. This could mean understanding their triggers, knowing what symptoms are likely to come up or being aware of reactions and behaviours they may have. It could also mean asking for tips on how to help them manage these things and what works best for them. Be open to the fact that they know their mental health best.
These tips are just the beginning. Another important step, if someone discloses a mental illness, can be to educate ourselves on the illness or disorder. What is at the crux of all this, however, is openness and empathy. When somebody opens up about their mental health they are trusting us with very personal information and making themselves vulnerable. Honour this and create an environment that is accepting and supportive.
The caveat here is that there is sometimes a place for what people may call “tough love”. This, however, should still be done with empathy. Support can sometimes mean guiding someone in action or in solutions and helping them be more proactive. There is a difference between being understanding, and enabling someone’s ineffective or unhealthy behaviours. If we are guiding someone to action, all the tips above still apply. Even the third. It is possible to acknowledge and validate where someone is emotionally while also expressing to them that change is needed.
Being understanding and non-judgemental of someone’s mental health does not mean that was cannot set boundaries. This is an example of where this “tough love” might come in. If someone is displaying unhealthy and ineffective behaviours that are hurting you, supporting them does not come at the detriment of setting personal boundaries to keep yourself healthy. As I always say, a mental illness is not someone’s fault and no one should be blamed for experiencing one. However, it is that person’s responsibility to manage their symptoms, work towards recovery, and avoid causing pain and hurt to others.
Supporting someone with their mental health can be complex. The most important thing to remember is to remain non-judgemental and find empathy for what they are experiencing. Think of how you would want to be treated if you shared something difficult and vulnerable. When people share their mental health struggles with us, it is often because they need support. Asking for help is a huge sign of strength and taking this step should be commended, especially when we face so much stigma telling us to keep it all to ourselves.