Now more than ever, mental health awareness — and support — is so important. It’s not only about maintaining a pulse on your own personal mental health, but taking the time to check in and be there for others who could also be struggling. But what does it mean to really “support” someone dealing with mental health issues? And how can you be the best possible friend to them in their time of need?
We took this one to the experts and enlisted the help of Vancouver-based clinical director and counsellor Alyson Jones, to shed some light on this important topic and what you should — and shouldn’t — try when supporting a friend in their mental health journey.
Don’t be afraid to bring it up first
When it comes to lending support to a friend in need, especially in the realm of mental health, it’s important that your friend feels a sense of sincere interest on your end. They need to know that you aren’t just “asking to ask” but rather, genuinely invested in their thoughts and feelings.
“Be curious about their experience,” Jones says. “Let them tell their story, should they want to share it with you. Do not interrupt and start to tell your own story or share solutions — just let the other person talk.”
Listening is key
Sometimes lending an ear is the only support strategy you’ll need — and if not, it’s almost always the best place to start.
“Do not try to ‘fix it’ too quickly. Just begin by trying to understand what your friend is going through,” Jones suggests. “Hold space for the difficult feelings without judgement and without an agenda to fix it and make it better. Your friend does not need to feel pressured to feel better so you can feel better.”
Often, armed with the best intentions, you may feel a responsibility to swoop in and “save” a friend in need. But when it comes to mental health, the strategy shouldn’t be solution-based, but rather, trying to understand where these feelings might be coming from, and working to act as an outlet for loved ones while they (sometimes with the help of a professional) work out sustainable solutions for themselves.
Reject the stigma
You should never come into a conversation — any conversation, for that matter — harbouring premature assumptions or biases. This will only hinder your ability to foster an open mind and make room for open dialogue.
“Even if you are in a support role, stay aware of your own biases and examine any judgements you may have,” Jones says. “Be honest with yourself, and then check to make sure your biases are managed. It is the judgments we are not honest about that creep in and undermine support. Help the person struggling with mental illness to reject the stigma as well. Acknowledge the stigma so that you can allow it to become less powerful.”
Help your friend to find their voice
Jones also advises that you work to help friends struggling with mental health to find their voice: “Speak for the person when they cannot speak, but step back and allow them to speak for themselves when they can,” she says. “Help the person who is struggling to be an advocate for themselves as you stand side-by-side with them. Your friend may then begin to use their diagnoses to better understand themselves and what they need.”
Your primary goal should always be to help a friend find their own voice — but there are some circumstances where that may not be an option. In those situations, it’s imperative that you tread carefully and always operate as a vessel for communication on behalf of your friend, and not attach your own personal feelings and beliefs to the message.
While we feel compelled to help the ones we love, we cannot lose sight of our own mental health needs along the way. This is where establishing boundaries becomes key.
“You do not have to give up your mental health to help another. It will not help your friend if you lose yourself while trying to help them. In fact,” Jones adds, “setting boundaries can be done with love and compassion and can model boundary-setting for the person who is struggling. You cannot do it all… to all people.”
Keeping it real with those you are trying to help, as far as your personal boundaries and limitations in support, is a kindness, not selfishness, as you are demonstrating transparency and true commitment to giving what you can, in a realistic sense. This allows for an honest and open space between you and your friend, where you can offer support and they can seek it, without overstepping established parameters set between the two of you.
You — like your friend — are not alone. Mental health affects us all at some point in our lives and, for most of us, it takes daily conscious awareness and a solid support system to maintain the healthiest possible mindset. But no one is perfect, and we are all just working to live our best lives — one day at a time.
“Accept that the struggle is real, and we all have dark times in our lives. Remember that we all struggle and none of us are above physical or mental health challenges,” Jones says. “It is time for mental health to be normalized, understood and accepted in the community. It is time to have honest conversations about important topics. As we let go of the fear and shame, we can then approach mental health issues with compassion, curiosity and kindness.”
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