Why have we got such an issue with talking to people about how we really feel? With statistics popping up like 1 in 4 of us experiencing mental health issues, 2 million people experiencing them more than 4 years ago and a 116% rise in those talking to Childline about suicide, we should know by now we're not alone.
Having dealt with mental health issues both personally and professionally, I know how important it is to talk to people about how we're feeling. However, a lot of people don't know how to broach the subject with a loved one they are concerned about and can end up panicking, shouting or brushing it off altogether.
It's critical that we know how to react during these conversations, in order to support them in the best way possible:
1) Realise that they don't need to be fixed - This is absolutely the most important thing to remember. Even though you may want nothing more, it is not your job to "fix" them. Mental health is not a 3 step programme that can be solved and completed in half an hour. It takes time, patience and a boat load of support. Don't be fooled into thinking they want you to fix the problem - often they just want to be heard. It's true what they say, a problem shared is a problem halved.
2) Don't interrupt with your own baggage - I can't tell you the amount of times I've tried to talk to someone about something important and they turn the whole conversation round to themselves. Don't get me wrong, a certain amount of empathy, putting yourself in another's shoes and sharing your own experiences can be very beneficial in letting them know you understand. However, I have often left these types of conversations feeling completely unheard and more frustrated than ever.
3) Listen without judgement - offering a safe space for someone to talk to you without the fear of being judged is a pivotal part of supporting someone with their mental health. This might be a challenge if someone discloses something that shocks you. Even if you can't understand how they're feeling, it's important to validate what they are saying as much as possible. For example, when working in an eating disorder therapy centre, we had a few clients with anorexia, bulimia and body dysmorphia. Even though some of them were absolutely tiny, they genuinely believed they were grossly obese and had all this extra fat hanging off them. Our job isn't to say "you're not fat" - our job is to say "I understand you're feeling this way and it must be horrible for you. What evidence do we have to support this statement? How can we see it from a different point of view?" Seeing it from another perspective can be incredibly beneficial, hence why therapy can be so effective.
4) Be compassionate - Compassion builds trust and trust builds strong connections. Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh states that the one true purpose of compassion is to help another empty his heart. When people feel heard and validated, the pain of the situation often lessens significantly and we feel a whole lot lighter.
5) Use humour - Obviously using humour isn't always appropriate but it's true what they say, laughter really is a powerful medicine. Humour connects us, changes our perspective and shines light on what can be a dark situation. It also lets them know you still see them as an equal and not someone to be pitied.
I asked a number of people who have experienced mental health problems themselves for their opinions on the subject. Unsurprisingly, when asked the question of the best way to support them when they're having a bad day, the responses were very similar.
"Listening is THE best thing. Just being there for me to rant to. I appreciate advice and help but if they're just there so I can talk my stress away it really helps. Definitely not forcing you to do something when you're uncomfortable in that low time and understanding that you'll bounce back you just need time."
"To not pester to "confide". Let them know they can talk if they want, but only if they want to".
"ACKNOWLEDGE IT. I hate it when people instantly start telling you to see the positives. Sometimes you just need someone to say "yep, it's sh*t. You feel rubbish and that's rubbish."
"Let them cry, let them talk and give a long hug! Just to be heard is all that matters."
"Just listen! Sometimes people try to help by offering solutions and that doesn't always make me feel better."
"Take you out for coffee even if you don't want to go out at all. Actually talk about what I'm feeling rather than avoiding it."
One common theme that clearly emerged is letting them go at their own pace. You may want to get them to talk so you can try and solve the problem as quickly as possible, but try and put their needs first in this situation. And finally, perhaps the most vital yet underrated thing of all, is to look after yourself and remember that you need support too! In order to effectively support and take care of others, you have to do these things for yourself first. You can't pour from an empty cup.
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