Why the second thing you say is most important
The work that charities and individuals have done over the past decade to open up conversations about mental heath is incredible - the amount of accounts on social media discussing wellbeing is testament to that. All the messages tell us that it is okay to speak about our mental health and that it is important to initiate discussion with friends, relatives and those around us day-to-day. So much so that the initiation is painted as the most important thing we can do to support others. However, I would argue that it is the second thing we say that makes the most difference and is therefore the most important...
Initiating a conversation with friend about how they are coping is important, of course without the first part, nothing else will follow. It may be your intuition, something may seem out of the ordinary in someone's behaviour or way of being. Or you may already know that this friend has been struggling, or agreed you would check in with them. A lot of the time, these scenarios can feel a little daunting, especially if it happens out of the blue - how will this friend react, will you overstep the mark, will it go wrong? I would argue that as long as you go into the conversation with good intentions, even if it doesn't go quite as you imagined, that is okay.
The reason I feel the second thing you say is important is that I have heard stories time and time again from people who have opened up to friends and family, only to be misunderstood, dismissed or made to feel awkward or unappreciated. Of course, I know that this will be a minority of conversations that happen, however they all had one thing in common - the person on the receiving end of the information did not react in a supportive way. So with this in mind, some things to consider if supporting someone in a conversation about their mental health -
Listen to listen, not to react
We go through life seeing the world through our own eyes, with our own opinions and beliefs. This often means that when we listen to people we process information from our own lens and then think how we will respond. The most supportive way to listen is to flip that on it's head and listen to how that person is experiencing the world, how they feel and try to feel how they are feeling. When I see clients, I try to enter their world and to understand their thoughts and feelings, and I reflect these back to them because it can be helpful to hear what has been said from someone else.
Don't analyse the situation
One of the disparaging things about opening up to someone is if they then tell you "you're this kind of person", or "well you shouldn't have done that", "don't you think if you just...". This can make people feel stupid, belittled or a failure. It is better to be curious about the situation, asking questions like "why do you think that happened?" to try understand the person's experiences better. If you feel that you have a good insight, it is a good idea to ask the person "would you like to know what I am thinking?" - this gives them the opportunity to accept or decline your invitation. This is the same for offering advice - "would you like some advice?" gives the person the opportunity to hear it or not.
Acknowledge how they are feeling
This comes back to listening to how they are feeling. When working with clients, I am constantly linking situations with feelings and emotions and so I listen out for emotion words such as angry, upset, devastated, excited. People feel heard when someone accurately sums up how they are feeling, for instance if you were to say to a friend "I'm sorry to hear you're having such as rough time, I can tell you are really stressed and upset." This shows that they have been heard and that they have your support.
This sounds quite clinical and something that professionals would say (we do, but for good reason!) Boundaries don't just matter in professional relationships, they affect our everyday life, from people not invading our personal space, to how we want to be treated in a relationship. In this circumstance, boundaries are important in not over promising to someone. This is important for yourself, as well as for that person because you promise what you are comfortable with, and in turn you can be reliable for that person. You could ask what they would like from you in terms of support and you will be able to tell them if that is something you can achieve. For instance you may be able to speak on the phone twice a week, but not commit to seeing them everyday to check how things are.
The fact you are reading this blog no doubt means that you are wanting to be the best support you can to friends and family, and I don't want the information to scare people. As I mentioned at the start of the blog, the main thing is that your intentions are good. If they are, positive outcomes follow. If you feel you make a mistake, check how it felt for the other person, apologise if necessary and move on. And remember, you can always encourage someone to seek further support from a professional such as a counsellor, or charities.