When a loved one is experiencing a mental health challenge, repeatedly asking them if they are OK (and ending the conversation there) might not be the most effective helping strategy.
‘Are you OK?’ is a great start, but you probably know that there is a bigger, more impactful dialogue that needs to be had. The people that I hold closest to my heart are all living with one or multiple mental health disorders – and when it is evident to me that they are not doing well, instead of asking them if they’re OK, I try to skip right to these questions:
What helped you the last time you were feeling like this?
When you know that your friend or family member is struggling, consider asking them what made them feel better the last time they experienced something similar. Take time to understand what works for them and what doesn’t.
Your loved one might be going through the worst mental health struggle they have ever experienced. They might be recently diagnosed. They might have no idea why they are feeling this way. All of this is OK.
If this is the case, and you feel comfortable, offer to support them in their journey of finding what coping mechanisms are the most accessible and helpful for them. The steps to healing are different for everyone, but some common ones are exercise, enjoying the outdoors, listening to music, meditating, spending time with people and pets, cooking and cultivating a healthy relationship with food, time management and planning, self-care – the list goes on.
What can I do to support you today?
As always, language is important.
Despite the purest of intentions, asking someone what you can do to help in general could make them feel overwhelmed. They don’t know how long they will be feeling like this or what they might need in the future.
Asking someone what you can do today is more focused, more practical, and easier to approach. It takes much less energy to think about what we need in the next few hours than what we may desire next week or next month. Taking life day by day is really beneficial to finding peace and staying grounded. Asking ‘What can I do to support you today?’ puts a spotlight on the present and encourages a constructive, healthy mindset.
What can we do together in the next week that will bring you some happiness?
Community and connection are a vital piece of recovery.
If you emphasize the idea that you and your loved one are a team, and reassure them that they are not going through this alone, it can give them some of the reassurance they might be needing.
Asking friends or family if there is anything that they would like to do (with you or a group of people) within the next week not only provides them with that crucial sense of togetherness, but also gives them something immediate that they can look forward to. Of course, it is important to note that your person may not be feeling up to a huge, day-long adventure.
One piece of advice I constantly hear as a future social worker: meet them where they’re at.
This idea is incredibly relevant and applicable to our personal lives, particularly when those that we care about the most are hurting, and we don’t exactly know how to help.
Start small, let go of your own expectations, and ask yourself if you are emotionally safe and ready to support them in this way.
Setting approachable goals and reminding our loved ones of the care, compassion, and community in their lives is priceless.
The next time your friend, significant other, or family member is experiencing a mental health challenge or disorder, and you know that they’re not okay:
- Apply knowledge from the past: ask them about what is most helpful for them during hard times.
- Keep goals small and focus on today.
- Give them something to be excited about, no matter how small – something that will strengthen the bond between you two and emphasise the love and acceptance they have in their lives.
In a world where mental health is stigmatised and ignored, the importance of supporting each other simply cannot be understated. Be kind to your friends and be kind to yourselves.
Katie Malgioglio is studying social work at the University of Connecticut, and she is certified in mental health first aid.
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