“People grow when they are loved well. If you want to help others heal, love them without an agenda.”Mike McHargue
Have we been listening to truly hear our friends out, or have we been listening to respond? Just as it hurts our loved ones seeing us suffer, it hurts us to see them suffer too. How should we respond when someone confides in us about their struggles or their overall mental wellbeing?
The first step is to not jump to conclusions. In the absence of information, our brain fills the gaps, influenced by emotional cues. When someone shares about what they are going through, they are not necessarily looking for an affirmation of whether they are right or wrong. Most of the time, we are all just looking to feel heard.
These are some of the approaches that we should be wary of:
1. “You don’t have the symptoms I had when I was suffering the same thing… are you sure this is what you’re going through?”
Sharing our testimony about our struggles can be empowering. However, we should be mindful of how we approach the subject and the way we share it. Some people of the mental health community have them turning against one another when their symptoms of the same mental health condition differs or is of varying intensity to another peer. Just because one person deals with a particular symptom from their mental health condition, it does not mean that another person who does not suffer that same symptom should be dismissed.
We should learn to be compassionate and mindful of the needs of the person that has approached us. Do they just need someone to listen and be there for them? By affirming that you are present, they will feel assured that you are really hearing them out — rather than waiting for your turn to talk. Senior lecturer in mental health and registered mental health nurse Ian Hamilton shares, “While it can be helpful to disclose and share a little bit about your own experience in response where appropriate, the top thing to avoid is making yourself the focus of the conversation instead.“
But sharing your story is not all bad. It depends on the need of the individual you are facing. Will they benefit from hearing our success story that there is a light at the end of the tunnel? Sharing our story can have the effect of bringing hope to our peers. Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer suggests that a sensitive way to go about sharing your story is to ask for permission before proceeding. You can then gage if your testimony is something that will be appreciated or if you should solely focus on lending an ear to them.
2. “You don’t look like someone who is struggling.”
We can often tell that someone is physically unwell through their lethargy, sniffles, coughs, aches, and many other physical symptoms. However when someone is not doing well mentally, their struggles do not always necessarily manifest in a physical form.
At times it may be clear that someone is struggling, whether be it through their demeanour, the way they dress, or how they carry themselves. But with others, it may not be so obvious. Saying things such as “you don’t look like someone who is struggling” or “you look so happy all the time, I never thought that you would be going through that” may provoke the impression that you are seeking for proof of what they are going through. Although it is understandable that our peer’s revelation may come as a shock, there are better ways to rephrase our reaction to the struggles they have concealed.
Therapist and psychologist Perpetua Neo emphasised that we should not minimise someone’s pain by pointing out how put together their life is despite the state of their mental health. If someone is suffering from trauma, tragedy, or is anxious and depressed about their life, comparing them to others who are “worse off” in comparison to them is not likely to be much comfort. Despite how things may seem on the surface, we should never invalidate one another’s emotions.
If we notice a loved one clearly going through something, how should we get the conversation going? Clinical psychologist Ryan Howes suggests a more general approach, approaching the topic along the lines of, “Things are so stressful these days. How have you been dealing with life [or this situation]?.” Remember this: you are not necessarily expected to advise or provide solutions. The heart of it all is to just be a friend and listen.
3. “I think you have [this mental health condition].”
Are our struggles invalid just because we don’t have a proper diagnosis? Regardless of whether a person is properly diagnosed, it does not make their struggles any less real. For example, a friend may be sneezing, suffering from a runny nose, and a high fever. You know based on what you see that they are unwell, despite whether a doctor has affirmed it. Your next step would usually be asking this friend to see a doctor to get better.
Just as how we approach physical health, let us leave diagnosing and labelling mental health conditions to the professionals. Your job as a friend and a listener is not to diagnose. Instead of pointing out a specific mental health condition, you can instead share your concern over their behaviour. It could be noticing their attitude towards alcohol, how they are seen less often outside, being less passionate about what they used to love, binge-eating. You can then follow-up your observations by asking them if everything has been alright.
4. “Just get some rest and don’t overthink. It’ll be fine after some sleep.”
This approach is not necessarily bad as it is often comes from a place of wanting to offer comfort. However, this approach may seem like you are making their problem smaller or brushing it off altogether. It may come off as a disinterest in wanting to understand what our peer is going through.
It is not helpful to say things like “just be happy”, because they may already be trying their hardest to do so and this would be rubbing salt to the wound. “Don’t tell them to just be grateful, because they do try to be grateful,” said Neo. We should learn how to understand, or at the very least just listen, to everyone’s point of view.
Showing that you empathise and you are not there to judge can make the difference between helping a person or alienating them. Acknowledging what your loved one is facing would be the first step. Don’t be in a rush to offer a quick-fix solution. Instead, assure your loved one that they are allowed to give themselves time. Healing takes time, and it is a process that is different for everyone.
5. “You’re thinking of things that you can’t change. There’s no point in doing that.”
When you hear that someone is struggling, it is natural for us to go into ‘fix-it mode’. Don’t get me wrong, there is great empowerment behind having a positive mindset. However, this approach may not work for all situations. We must gage the relevance of this approach based on what each individual is sharing.
If we are faced with someone who has been fighting their hardest to get out of the pit they are in, wouldn’t they have already been trying over and over again to remain positive? April Ash, a clinical psychologist of The Indigo Project, shares, “Although changing our mindset is a big part of therapy [for depression], this isn’t something we can just turn on and off. People need a lot of help in shifting their mindset.”
We may not be able to understand everything that led up to someone feeling the way they do, but we can choose to ask instead, “How would you like me to be here for you?”. By asking this, it gives them the space to articulate their thoughts. Talking things out may allow the individual to see the bigger picture and have a better grasp of what they are feeling. Ian Hamilton shares, “Don’t try to start solving people’s problems for them. Let them come up with potential solutions for themselves. That gives them control. People are very individual in the way they feel and solve things.”
6. “You’re probably just too into your own head. Go outside and get your mind off things.”
Going out or getting exercise has scientifically been proven to help alleviate a person’s mood. However, telling someone that they may just be ‘too much into their own head’ does not solve the root of the problem. What they were worried about may have been temporarily forgotten, but it may return once they are alone with their thoughts.
Instead, let the person know that you care for them, but not in a ‘holier than thou way’ or like you know what’s best for them. Clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Suzanne Klein suggests firstly to emphasise on the importance of your loved ones’ happiness and health. The conversation can then be led to telling them that they should not be suffering alone, and they will not be judged for wanting to get help. Remind them that they are not defined by the state of their mental health.
7. “You’re probably just really far away from God right now. Just go and pray, and it’ll all go away.”
Let me first emphasise this: You are not any weaker in your faith just because you are struggling with your mental health. You are not weak for succumbing to what life throws at you, nor are you seen as weaker for asking for help. According to Neo, if we are always trying to suck it up and get on with things, we will eventually crash.
Instead of dismissing someone by asking them to ask God to solve their problems, we could instead offer to pray together with them about what they are facing. Personally, the first thing I would do is to hear my peers out. After listening to them and acknowledging what they are going through, I would then offer to pray with them to wrap up the conversation. I would then explain how prayer has comforted me personally, and it is up to them to choose if they are comfortable with the idea of praying together. Through this prayer, I would recap what they have confided in me, pray for their discernment and patience to face what they have been going through, as well as God’s guidance for their lives. Praying together helps to create a stronger sense of community and accountability. After all, as quoted from Matthew 18:20: “for where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”