Everyone deserves to feel loved and supported, and everyone deserves to feel empowered to help the people they care about. So here is what I know about being a support person for someone who is having a hard time.
Academically, this information is based on what I have learnt from studying Mental Health as part of my degree, completing a Mental Health First Aid course and undertaking a mental health placement in an acute psychiatric setting.
Personally, this information is based on my experience with my own mental health issues of depression and anxiety and also from my experience of supporting the people I care about through times of hardship.
We know that good health is not merely the absence of physical disease. Health encompasses not only physical well-being but also mental well-being. It has been concluded that mental illnesses rank as the 3rd largest burden on disease in Australia, after cancer and heart disease.
With 1 in 4 people suffering from a mental illness at some point in their lives, I am almost certain that each of you reading this article will, in some way shape or form, have had an experience with mental illness, whether it be a friend, family member or even yourself, who has been touched by the debilitating grip of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, psychotic episodes, substance abuse or even suicide.
Unfortunately due to stigma, shame, lack of understanding and social pressures, a lot of individuals, both young and old, face the terrifying face of mental illness alone.
For this reason it is incredibly important that we, as support people, as friends, siblings, parents, teachers, partners, children and members of the greater community, are able to identify, approach and assist those who are struggling, to ensure that no-one suffers in silence. For the purpose of this article, and because the scope of Mental Health is so large I am going to focus on providing support for those dealing with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
>>>>>>Please note if you are concerned that the individual is at risk of harming themselves or others, if their behaviour is very disturbing to others or if the person is incredibly distressed it is important that you seek immediate help by calling your emergency contact line – 000, your nearest triage center or lifeline - 13 11 14 <<<<<<
1. So first things first, how do you approach someone you are worried about?
- What are you going to say? It’s a good idea to have a think about what you are going to say to your friend, family member or colleague before you approach them. What are your concerns? What have you noticed? Why are you reaching out? These are questions you need to ask yourself before you go to the individual, to prepare you to be the support person. Once you know the answer to these question you will be better able to provide honest support and communicate your concerns effectively.
- How are you going to say it? It’s also a good idea to think about how you are going to say it. You want the individual to know that you are worried about them, that you care about them, and that you genuinely want to help. Try not to address the situation in a way that implies they have a “problem” or that their thoughts, beliefs or feeling are false, “crazy” or unjustified. Instead focus on what you have observed and state why that worries you. Refrain from playing the blame game, even if the person has done something that has upset you, don’t try and make them feel guilty about it, your aim as the support person is to get to the source of the issue and assist them in gaining the necessary help.
- Do some research: do a bit of reading on what it is you think they may be struggling with. There are hundreds of reputable mental health websites out there filled with information designed to help you get a handle on mental health (I have listed some resources at the bottom of this article)
- Choose an appropriate setting: Choose an appropriate time and place to have the conversation, it may seem like common sense but if you’re addressing a topic that can be quite sensitive and potentially make the individual feel very vulnerable you need to be somewhere that they feel safe to open up, so ensure you have privacy, that they feel comfortable and that you have sufficient time to approach the situation. There is no point planning on having the conversation with someone if you only have 5mins between appointments or if someone else is meeting up with you shortly.
- Avoid an intervention style conversation: Suggest doing something that will help make the situation a little less daunting. Go for a walk, shoot some hoops, grab a coffee, go for a drive. By approaching the situation in this way you are both going to feel more comfortable than if you were to sit down in front of them and try to have an “intervention” style conversation.
- Be non-judgemental and give your undivided attention; Once you have breached the topic with the individual its important to give them your undivided attention. Set your distractions aside (phone away) and let them know that you have set aside time to listen to whatever is going on and then do so non-judgmentally. During this time refrain from cutting them off, jumping to conclusions or making judgments about their situation.
- Ask questions to gain a better understand of their situation and to show that you are listening to what is being said. Before you start offering advice and resources it is important that the individual is able to express themselves. You want them to feel as though they can vent and talk through the situation before you try and put a band aid on it.
2. How do I give appropriate support and information?
- Once the person has felt listened to, they will be more willing to listen to advice or resources that you may suggest. At this point that research you did into mental illness, online resources, help hotlines and local support groups will come in handy. If you are not the greatest online resource finder, consider calling lifeline yourself, explain the situation to one of the operators and ask them to share with you the most appropriate resources in your area.
- Provide emotional support by trying to empathize with their situation. By identifying how certain aspects of their situation might make them feel eg. isolated, confused or misunderstood, you are connecting and showing that you are trying to understand what they are going through.
- Slow and sweet; Be patient and kind even if the behaviour is not reciprocated. It is important that you make it clear to the individual that you will not give up on or abandon them even if their situation is complex.
- Offer assistance; Ask the person if there is anything that you can do to assist them and make life a little less overwhelming. After you have listened to them non-judgmentally and shown that you genuinely want to help they are more likely to accept offers of assistance.
If talking things through with you, and checking in regularly with the person isn’t enough, it’s important that you encourage the person to seek appropriate professional help.
You are not expected to be able to fix all of their problems, the purpose of being a support person is to connect, to try and understand and to let the person know that they are not alone. Sometimes the individual will not want any help, other than the discussion you have had, but in the case that they do, here are some helpful resources and ideas to keep in mind.
- In Australia you can go to your GP and have a Mental Health Plan created which will enable anyone to have access to 10 sessions with a psychologist of your choice for a subsidized rate. This first step can sometimes be the hardest, so if seeing a psychologist is something the individual is interested in, offer to go to the GP with them, help book an appointment, research psychologists in their area or locate online resources that detail different professional options.
- The QPR – Question, Persuade and Refer - Website offers a free online suicide prevention training course which takes about an hour to complete and it covers warning signs of suicide, how to apply QPR and how to offer hope and support. hhtp://suicideprevention.salvos.org.au/training/qpr-suicide-prevention
- THIS WAY UP is run by the Clinical Research Unit for Anxiety and Depression in Sydney. It offers free information on depression and anxiety disorders and brief online courses designed to help a person learn to overcome these disorders – www.thiswayup.org.au/self-help
- myCompass - Internet & mobile self-help program provided by the Black Dog Institute designed to help people monitor feelings and behaviours that they may be having trouble with and offers modules that can be completed to help them gain the skills to better manage – www.mycompass.org.au
3. Resources for depression, anxiety & suicidal thoughts
Black Dog Institute – www.blackdoginstitute.org.au
BluePages – http://bluepages.anu.edu.au
Lifeline 24-hour counselling – 13 11 14 – https://www.lifeline.org.au/Get-Help/
Mens line Australia – for men with relationship or family concerns – 1300 78 99 78
Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
Victoria Mental Health Services A-Z – http://www.health.vic.gov.au/mentalhealth/atoz.ht
Take home tips;
2. – Read up on the issue before you approach them, especially if you haven’t experienced the issue before
3. – Think about what you’re going to say and how you are going to say it before you speak with them
4. – Offer to go to the GP with them to get a mental health plan created
5. – Environment, choice of words & body language will determine how likely the person is to open up to you so ensure privacy, convey open body language and ensure your tone of voice and choice of words show kindness and patience
6. – Don’t feed delusions, anxieties or fears however don’t dismiss them as being ridiculous.
7. – Don’t take on too much and try to tackle tricky issues alone. No-one expects you to be the super hero who counsels your friend back to mental clarity. Your job is to offer support, a non-judgemental ear and resources to ensure that the individual isn’t experiencing this inner, and sometimes outer turmoil alone.