In an age where mental health distress is more prevalent and more talked about, we are encouraged to reach out for help and to reduce the stigma attached to emotional distress. But what is our role as a support person? It can be hard to know where to start and you may worry about saying the ‘wrong’ thing. Check out this step by step guide for supporting people in distress.
Notice the signs
Watch out for changes in behaviour. E.g., anger, tears, frustration, withdrawal, difficulty concentrating, spending more time at work, or starting to turning up late and leave early.
Timing is everything
Make sure you have time for the conversation - don’t try to squeeze it into a five minute gap in your diary. Be mindful of the need to move to a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed or overheard.
Ask with courage
“You seem really unhappy. Would you like to talk? I’m here for you.”
“I noticed you’re [not taking part in the things you usually enjoy]. I’m worried about you. Would you like to talk about it?”
Listen and Validate
Ask them what’s going on and just reflect on what they say. Help them feel heard. You can ask, “how are you doing?” and say “yeah, that sounds hard or that sounds upsetting.” People have a hard time taking action unless they feel heard and understood.
Ask open questions
Ask what they want! You can’t push someone to do something unless they want to do it too. Find ways to support them towards their goals in a way that you both can agree on. You could ask how they feel about the thing you want them to do.
Resist the urge to fix or give advice
There is a time for advice—and that comes when someone asks for it. If they haven’t asked, lean towards support. There are times when you might even agree with them: “Yes, this mental illness sucks.” Once you give people the space to feel heard, their defenses go down and they are more open to a conversation.
Explore options together
If someone says “I don’t want to do this,” then you’re probably going to make it more difficult for yourself (and for them) by demanding it. You might say, “Ok. Let’s not do that...what is something you do want to do?” For some who aren’t sure or aren’t ready to address the mental illness, don’t use those words right away. Feel free to start with work, relationships, life, stress, sleep — and then bring up “mental illness” again later.
Suicide and Self Harm
If you feel that you can, then you should ask someone if they have been thinking about hurting themselves. Find your own words, and practice them. Talking to EAP yourself may be helpful. Most people won’t tell you that they are suicidal unless you ask them.
There is a point when you may need to call for help. If your loved one presents an immediate danger to themselves or someone else, or if they are having a psychotic episode or drug overdose, it may make sense to ring 111 or crisis line. An immediate threat to harm oneself is a medical emergency. The part of the body that is not working and needs medical assistance is the brain.
Take care of yourself and find your own support
We can’t help others unless we’re okay. It’s hard to be patient when we’re tired and frustrated. Especially if you are in a long-term support role, make sure you have someone to talk to. We recommend calling EAP to protect the person’s privacy and make sure you are getting good advice.
Remember, if you have the time, then preparing for difficult conversations is always a good idea. Talk to a professional, and remember that you will need your own support and ability to set boundaries when supporting someone who has a long-term illness. Start simple, ask how someone is doing today and really listen to the answer.