Want To Help Someone Who Has A Mental Health Condition? Follow This Expert Advice
How to move beyond well-intentioned social media platitudes and help loved ones cope with mental health
The recent news of actor Sushant Singh Rajput dying of suicide and the discussions that have followed has pushed mental health conversations centre stage. This news triggered an outpouring of emotions, followed by an overwhelming number of people talking about how to help—being there or lend support—a lot of it on social media—which though entirely well-intentioned, may not be enough. We simply may not have the tools to help.
Reader’s Digest spoke to mental health experts on how to actually help our loved ones—in our families or our peer groups—who are struggling and serve as functional support networks.
Spot the signs
The first step to provide assistance to those who could be struggling is to identify the signs. Pooja Nair, an independent psychotherapist and faculty at the Queer Affirmative Counseling Practice (QACP) course, run by Mariwala Health Initiative (MHI), Mumbai, says, “For friends and family who are seeking to help, there is a certain understanding that both sides carry of each other. But It is important to look at what we know about the concerned people, to sense if there have been certain changes that are distressing. If we sense that the person is not alright, the first thing to do then would be to ‘see the signs’. Says Nair, “When you know a friend or a family member may be struggling, talk to them and get a sense of where they are, what is happening to them. That would help you know that it is time to ask the question, ‘Are you doing okay? Are you alright?’”
Work on building relationships
It can be of great relief for a struggling person to have someone to talk to. If you recognize that a loved one is overwhelmed, it is important to let them know that you are available. Sidhanta Borkataky, Queer Affirmative Expressive Arts Therapist based out of Bengaluru says, “They need to know that someone in their family or friend group is approachable. Work on building your relationship, so they can recognize that they can seek your help, and yours is a relationship with a certain level of trust and respect so that they know that they can approach you with anything.”
Save the judgement
One of the key practices while talking to someone about their mental health is to avoid judgement. Do not tell them that they are being “weird” or their feelings are “crazy”, or invalid—that is not helpful at all. “Your non-judgmental attitude should show in the words you use, as well as the body language!” says Aparna Samuel Balasundaram, US-based behavioural health consultant and psychotherapist.
Borkataky, echoes this, pointing out that “we have our own biases and judgements and that isn’t something you can be unaware of, but you should work on providing space for conversations to emerge in a way that the person you are trying to help feels safe. Making them feel heard, and understand that whatever is being spoken about is just between the both of you.” The need is to be compassionate and adopt a more flexible attitude.
Also, do understand that behaviours are not directed at irritating you. Mumbai based Dr Rizwana Nulwala, Krizalyz Counselling and Mental Health Services, says, “We need to change the way we look at these behaviours. Take the example of a teenager struggling with depression. Parents will often complain, ‘He doesn’t even want to have a bath’. Say, if someone had cancer and didn’t have a bath, you would appreciate that he was in pain and so he does not want a bath”. You need to understand, both are medical conditions. You have to be flexible when dealing with people with mental health concerns.
How to have a conversation
Though it is important to be available and lend an ear to a friend, a partner or a family member, it is crucial to understand how to negotiate a conversation with a dear one who is reaching out to you. Do not trivialize what they are feeling by saying, “This is nothing, it will pass, you just need to try harder …” It is important that you hear them out, don’t jump to provide solutions or compare life-experiences. If you have gone through something similar, then share that experience, it would go a long way in making them feel like they are not alone. But, do not switch the focus to your own struggles. Dr Nulwala points out why we often offer up advice: “We are always quick to solve other people’s issues because we are uncomfortable with distress and negative feelings, so we want to problem-solve. But, the core component of talking to someone with mental health struggles is active listening, where you listen for the feeling. When the person is telling you their story, try to understand what is that they are feeling and hold on to that.”
Dr Kamana Chibber, clinical psychologist, Fortis Hospital, Delhi advises on what not to do, “Don’t interrupt them, let them talk about their experiences and share how they are feeling. Do not be dismissive of their experiences, even though you may feel differently about something they are going through. Offering solutions could be counterproductive. It could make them think that people around them do not understand their problems, which could prevent help seeking. Or they could turn around and say it is not working for them or make them feel inadequate, which would make them feel alienated, and result in them withdrawing further from seeking help.”
Stigma around therapy is often the reason why so many, struggling with their mental health, don’t seek the help they could benefit from. Know that therapy can be life-saving. It is essential that avoid viewing the act of seeking help as a sign of weakness or a character deficit. Says Dr Nulwala, “Research as well as my work with clients suggest that those who are more verbal, have higher IQs and have insight, are the ones that seek therapy. Therapy is hard work; you have to be prepared to take a long, hard look at yourself. It often involves admitting that you have goofed up and that you are seeking to make a change. That requires courage. So, when people are in therapy, we need to encourage them. In fact, not everyone has the capacity for it.” She argues that the narrative around therapy needs to be deconstructed to say that you don’t need to have clinical problems to go to therapy. You can seek help because you want to work on yourself or learn better life-skills because, no matter how healthy and happy homes we come from, our parents or schools are not able teach us everything about life. “Therapy is a course in self-preservation. It can teach you a lot about yourself, and how you can manage to live a healthier life,” she adds.
Asking someone why they are struggling can be triggering, it could leave feeling inadequate. Often they could resort to wondering, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ ‘Why is this not happening to anyone else?’ Learn to respect boundaries, understand that a friend may not be willing to talk, or that your simple questions—why and how—can be triggering. Borkataky advises, instead of ‘why’ you should ask what is happening in your life that is making you a particular way. “Focus on what is happening in their environment, talk about the fact that there are a lot of stressors out there that causes different mental states and it not necessarily that there is a problem with the person inside.” He adds, “If you approach someone from this perspective, then it could help them reconcile themselves to the fact that this isn’t a personal failing and they can come out of it [the bad patch] with a little help. That could help them feel more at ease with seeking therapy.”
Illustration for representative purposes only (Courtesy Pixabay)
Encourage them to get expert help
It is important to understand that it might sometimes be beyond our abilities to make someone feel better, or help deal with dark thoughts. Despite your best intentions, understand that you don’t have the tools or the clinical training essential to help them with their struggles. An oft repeated statement by mental health experts, is the need to treat mental health like any other physical pain and disease, by seeking out an expert, trained to treat you. Says Dr Chibber, “If a dear one is struggling then get them expert help, if their mental health conditions are long lasting and their life and relationships are impacted. If you are suffering from a mental health issue, expert help cannot be substituted. Stay connected and encourage them to get help, if you feel like a higher level of intervention is required.”