When a loved one opens up about their mental health struggles, it’s hard to find the right words. Do you console them? Give them a hug? Tell them everything will be OK? In that moment of vulnerability, how do you respond to your friend, sibling, or in the case of Jada Pinkett Smith, your own child?
In a recent appearance on The MOMS podcast, Pinkett Smith speaks about the filming of her Facebook Watch show, Red Table Talk, where she first found out about her daughter Willow Smith’s past experience with self-harm. On the show, Willow Smith admitted that she physically harmed herself while facing the pressure surrounding her 2010 album Whip My Hair — and it was the first Pinkett Smith had heard of her teenage daughter’s struggle.
“I wanted to make sure she was okay,” Pinkett Smith says of her discovery. “I realized that as a mother you also have to give your children space to deal with their own shadow.” Pinkett Smith admits that hearing about her daughter’s struggle was upsetting, but she felt proud of Willow’s willingness to open up: “I was most proud that she could share it in the way she did [in public], which let me know she had come through in a major way that she could put it on the table like that.”
While there’s never one right thing to say when a loved one confides in you about their mental health, there are certain comments that will help them feel supported, says Lynn Bufka, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and Associate Executive Director of Practice, Research and Policy at the American Psychological Association. Here, how you can best navigate the conversation:
Be as open as possible
When a loved one opens up to you, the conversation is often raw and scary for them, so it’s important to show that you’re open to whatever they want to share. “It’s okay to say you’re surprised,” Bufka says. “But it’s important to let them know that you’re willing and able to hear them out, and that you’ll do your best to be open to them.” When it comes to your initial response, focus on sensitivity and honesty. “They’re trusting you with something intimate, personal, and potentially something they feel ashamed about. Allow them to disclose at their own pace,” Bufka recommends.
Emphasize your relationship
“You’re still my family, and I love you,” Bufka suggests telling your loved one when they sit down with you. It’s vital to let them know that whatever they’ve shared with you about their mental health, your relationship will not change, and you’re happy just to be there for them and listen to them. “It’s about letting them know that you’ll do your best to be supportive,” Bufka says.
Show practical support
After expressing unconditional love for the person, the next step is emphasizing the importance of seeking professional help elsewhere, and doing what you can to help in that process. According to Dr. Bufka, small actions can help make their journey easier, and extending a hand goes a long way. “Offer to join them in one of their therapy sessions,” she recommends. “And if they don’t want that, just offer to drive them there –– or find a restaurant nearby to get dinner together afterwards –– or even to watch their kids while they’re in treatment.”
Once the initial conversation is over, put in the effort to educate yourself on this person’s particular condition, Bufka says. “As a family member or a close friend, it can be beneficial to everyone if you know what’s going on. Find a reputable source and do your own research.” By learning about what they’re going through, and knowing what they need, you can be an even greater comfort. They’ll appreciate that you took the time to understand what they’re dealing with.
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