HOW TO BE THERE WHEN SOMEONE NEEDS YOU
Sharing your mental health struggles with another person can be life-changing, but it’s also important to consider who’s on the receiving end of these conversations. If you are that person, you may feel like you’re unqualified to help out, or lost as to how to respond. But they’re sharing with you because you make them feel safe in some way—and that’s not for nothing!
Here are a few ways that you can listen effectively and respond with compassion, and you don’t need a psychology degree to do it.
Be an active listener
Just show up
You’ve already done a lot just by being present and showing up for someone you care about, even if you have no clue what to say or how to react. Being able to sit with them, look them in the eyes, and give them a hug when they need one is extremely meaningful and can be more helpful than you realize. Sometimes, just knowing that someone is there to listen is enough.
Believe what they’re saying
The invisibility of mental health challenges can make sharing thoughts and feelings really difficult. There’s no way to “prove” that someone’s struggling, but it’s real. Doubting a portion of what someone tells you can immediately negate everything running through their mind. Listening with an open mind and without judgment is the most powerful way to show someone that you’re there for them.
Voice your support
Saying things like “just be grateful for what you have” or “choose to be happy” are not the best responses. While you may have the best intentions, someone can have everything they’ve ever dreamed of and still be struggling with their mental health. It’s not as easy as just choosing to be happy. Instead, remind them that they are loved and supported in all aspects of their lives and that their feelings are valid.
It’s not an interrogation
In listening, the goal is to understand—and to understand, sometimes you need to ask clarifying questions. Just be careful that it doesn’t turn into an interrogation. Asking question after question, without giving someone the time to fully think and respond, shouldn’t be the goal. This is a chance for their voice to be heard, and for you to listen. If you can tell that whoever you’re talking to is nervous, asking a couple of open-ended questions right off the bat can help them get started.
You don’t have to fix it
A lot of times, there isn’t a direct explanation for why someone is anxious, depressed, suicidal, or whatever it is they’re feeling. Unlike a broken leg or the flu, there’s not always a clear, direct cause. As humans, we tend to want to solve every problem presented to us, but it isn’t your job to figure out where your loved one’s emotions stem from. Most importantly, that’s probably not why they chose to open up to you.
This isn’t about you
If you are extremely close to the person talking to you, it can be hard to stay neutral. It’s normal to have doubts pop up in your mind that maybe you aren’t doing enough or that you have something to do with how they’re feeling. Stay present in the conversation and try not to take their feelings as a personal attack. You may have the urge to share your own struggles—that’s completely okay, but make sure you don’t take over the conversation. Let this moment be about them, not you.
After the conversation
We live in a time where all of the resources you could ever need are right at your fingertips. After your discussion, do some research based on what they shared with you. We can’t literally put ourselves in someone’s shoes, so the next best thing is to educate yourself and try to understand what they’re going through. It may help you discover what you can be doing to help them.
Take it seriously
If someone confides in you, take whatever they say seriously. They’re trusting you with something that they may not be able to handle by themselves. Check in with them in the future, and offer whatever support you can—even a quick text can go a long way. If you feel that they are at risk of hurting themselves or others, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. You can also reach out to Crisis Text Line by texting MHA to 741741 in the US. It’s free, confidential, and available 24/7.
Take care of yourself
Give people support in a way that’s realistic for you. If you’ve ever struggled with your own mental health, you’re a really great resource for another person working through something similar. On the other hand, it can bring up tough emotions. Remember that your mental health is just as much a priority. If that’s the case, guide someone towards resources that helped you, and let them know how you’re feeling too. It’s ok to take a step back if you need to.
The person that you’re listening to felt comfortable enough to confide in you. It takes a lot of courage to open up about the things going on in our minds and how we feel, and you’re helping to make it easier by being supportive and caring. Your response can change how they have conversations in the future, and it can help you open up if your roles are ever reversed.