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How to truly support loved ones struggling with mental health

By Lauren Olson, November 20 2019 —

I trust that the universe puts me exactly where I need to be, as always. I find myself snickering — on the inside — at the appropriateness of me writing this article. I’ve always been the friend who does all the counselling: the shoulder to cry on, the wise old owl, the sharer of wisdom and emotional support beam for all my friends. 

Then, the first day of reading week — a week I had legit plans to crush all my papers and school work and truly be productive — my relationship ended and I found myself reeling. My whole life flipped on its head. Eating was off the table, and getting out of bed and drinking water suddenly was a victory of substantial proportion. I found myself being overcome with anxiety that made it hard to breathe, and experienced physical grief I’d never faced before. Sitting on the floor taking off an engagement ring I’d been wearing for over two years, wondering what was going to happen now became the unfortunate focus of the whole week, unfortunately. 

Suddenly, I was the friend who was struggling emotionally. Big time. But this isn’t a story about me. The reason I share my current state of affairs is because I’ve been struggling worse than I have in a very long time and I’ve been the recipient of some incredible support from friends and family. Getting to share some of the things the amazing people in my life have been doing for me to help me through the last week is a pretty stellar opportunity. Take notes, everyone. 

Don’t freak out:

When your friend or family member comes to you with something they’re struggling with, please stay calm. When a person is in turmoil, the last thing they need is somebody else encouraging those negative feelings. Be there, hear them out and resist the urge to amplify the situation.

Listen:

I find that people tend to want to take other people’s distress as opportunities to boost their own self worth by making the situation about them. Don’t do that. It can be hard because we all want to help and we think that helping is finding a solution or agreeing with all the things that are wrong. But honestly, what’s truly helpful is often just letting the person know you’re there for them. Listen to understand, not to respond. 

Talk to the person without colluding and without judgement:

During conversations with someone who is struggling, I think it’s crucial that it remains a judgement-free zone. It’s also important to not collude with a person’s misery. Collusion, for anyone who doesn’t know, is when you agree with a person’s victim story. It’s when someone is saying they are helpless to a situation and you sit there and agree with them. How is that helpful? It sounds good, because we all like to be right and sometimes a person isn’t ready for the “look for the bright side” speech, but resist the temptation to agree with someone about how bad things are. 

Don’t expect anything from the person who is struggling:

This point ties into the previous one. No matter how great a person you are, there’s still a part of you who wants some validation for how helpful you were. Again, when someone is on the struggle bus, they have a limited capacity. If a person is having a hard time taking care of their basic needs, having a friend who is looking for validation — even if it’s just energetically — is exhausting, stressful and the exact opposite of helpful. If you’ve made plans with them and they have to cancel, do not get mad. If the person doesn’t respond to your text, understand that sometimes sending a text really is just too hard. Once again, this isn’t about you. 

Ask the person what you can do:

Rather than assuming anything, just ask! Ask if the person wants to be around other people or if they’d rather be alone.* There will be phases of a person’s struggle and you never know where the person is at unless you ask them. Also, on that note, don’t force anyone to talk about their struggles. People will say what they’re comfortable saying when they’re ready. In cases of extreme mental health struggles, use discretion.  Sometimes leaving someone alone isn’t safe. 

Offer help in non-pressure ways:

This item on the list is inspired by some of my amazing friends. Send a text in the morning just to remind your friend that they are amazing and loved. Bring over some pre-made food so they don’t have to cook but maybe then they’ll actually eat. Text your friend or family member little reminders in the day to drink some water or to go for a walk. Offer to spend time with them if they want and do something chill and distracting. Disney night, anyone? I can’t say how much it meant to have friends check in on me in these ways this last week. A simple text asking me if I’d eaten anything that day was more than just the content, but a reminder that people are there for me if I needed them. Sometimes that’s all the nudge a person needs to take those small steps towards healing. 

I think the biggest thing to keep in mind when you have a friend or family member who is struggling is to be aware of them, keep an eye on them, but give them the space they need to work through whatever it is. You can only offer or do so much and the rest is up to the person. Of course there are varying degrees of struggle and it always depends on the person how much intervention is necessary. Somebody’s safety is obviously paramount and some common sense is required to gauge situations appropriately. For the average situation, be there and understand that emotional struggle is often invisible, private and isolating so those gestures of thought and support go a really long way to encouraging someone to open up and be honest. Love each other through it, guys. We all have our times. 


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