How to support others
This blog is a part of a special series observing Mental Health Awareness Month.
While statistics indicate that 1 in 5 people will experience a diagnosable mental health condition during their lifetime, we will all go through challenging times that adversely affect our mental health. For many of us, that challenging time is right now.
With that being said, in addition to knowing how to manage your mental health, it’s important to know how to help those around you as well. It can be difficult to watch a friend or family member struggle through difficult times, especially when we often don’t know how to help, so here are seven practical ways you can support someone. These suggestions are a summary of tips provided by Mental Health America:
- Practice active listening. Active listening is just that: active. In order to practice active listening, you’ll need to set aside what you’re doing (phone, email, side activities, etc.) and provide your complete attention to the person who is talking. Ask specific and open-ended questions to encourage the speaker to share, make consistent eye contact if the conversation is in person and take opportunities to summarize what is being said to ensure you understand clearly.
- Don’t compare. When someone comes to you with a situation that is similar to one you have gone through, be careful not to compare. For example, if someone shares how they are having a difficult time with a breakup, don’t mention how you went through a more difficult divorce. It’s okay to share that you have been in a similar position as a way to provide empathy and share how you were able to cope; however, you don’t want to make the conversation about yourself in that moment. You’ll run the risk of making the other person feel like their pain is invalid.
- Ask what you can do. Ask the individual what you can do to practically help them. Everyone is different, but there is great benefit to asking what someone needs as opposed to assuming. If the individual says they don’t need anything, offer suggestions about what you’d be willing to do (without being pushy). Examples could include bringing them a meal, picking up items from the store, meeting with them to talk, etc.
- Keep your word. If you have offered to support someone, make sure to follow through. If someone is struggling, failing to follow through could add to the difficulty they are experiencing. If you absolutely can’t follow through, make sure to apologize and figure out another time to do what you said you would do.
- Don’t judge. In order to truly support someone, you’ll need to put aside your personal opinions and predispositions about the situation. Whether the person is grappling with a mistake, or you think they’re overreacting, your criticism will not be helpful for recovery.
- Offer to join them. When someone is struggling, they may feel paralyzed and unable to take care of their responsibilities. Offering to help them take care of those responsibilities (walking the dog or going to the grocery store, for example) can help them feel a sense of accomplishment and lift their spirits.
- Know when more serious help is needed. Despite your best efforts to support your loved one, sometimes your support won’t be enough. If your friend or loved one struggles for weeks or months, they may be showing signs of a mental health condition that requires professional assistance. It’s okay to encourage them to seek help from a mental health professional. You may even consider helping them find a provider.*
Extra Credit: Help Others, Help Yourself
It is worth noting that helping others benefits your mental well-being too. One study shows that providing support to others increases activity in the part of the brain associated with receiving a reward, while other studies show helping others manage their emotions helps us manage our own emotions, decreases symptoms of depression and ultimately improves our emotional well-being.
If you feel like your friend or loved one is struggling with their mental health, encourage them to visit mhascreening.org to check symptoms. This service is free, confidential and anonymous. After the individual fills out their information, MHA will provide information and resources to help them feel better.
If someone you care about is in immediate danger of taking suicidal action, seek help by calling 911 or going to the closest emergency room. Trained crises counselors are available 24/7 by texting “MHA” to 741-741 or calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255).