Interacting with a loved one who displays psychological health concerns can always be tricky. As a part of their support system, the most important for you to do is to treat your loved one with respect and empathy. Most people who suffer from depression, anxiety or any other mental health concern often report feelings of loneliness or isolation. Therefore, your presence coupled with your ability to be empathetic and nonjudgmental can play an essential role in helping them cope better and recover faster.
Anticipate their reaction
Before going to speak to them, it might help you to anticipate their reactions so that you can remain calm and collected. Always keep in mind that they might be dealing with a lot of pain and anger, and may break down because they are in an emotionally vulnerable position. Alternatively, they may seem distant, and almost unemotional. Both these reactions are common, and in either of these situations, being prepared will help you feel more at ease.
Respect the boundaries that they draw
Note that every individual is different, and every individual has differing emotional needs. Some people might like to be held and comforted, while others prefer some space. If you are unclear about how to reassure them, ask them what they would prefer; a simple “is it okay if I hold your hand?” will help you gauge what they need from you. Remember to reinforce the idea that you are there for them, and that they can count on you.
Make sure you do not come off as judgmental or condescending
It is very likely that your loved one will get defensive if they feel that the conversation has a confrontational tone to it. Phrases such as “buck up” or “you are better off than most people, be grateful for what you have.” do not help as well. Try starting the conversation by being more compassionate and curious. Allow them to talk as much as they want to without being interrupted. Keep in mind that, sometimes, the most significant aid comes in the form of being attentive and empathetic.
Empathy vs. Sympathy
“Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, being or fictional character ” (Carl Rogers, Brene Brown). While it is tempting to confuse the emotion with sympathy, (the feeling of compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters), there is one fundamental difference. Empathy requires you put yourself in another person’s shoes. This distinction is vital in understanding what your loved one is going through at the moment.
Reflective rather than Reactive listening
Rather than focussing on being the one giving advice, or reacting to what they say, reflective listening will allow you to understand your loved one’s Point Of View (POV). While it may be tempting to point out what went wrong; refrain from doing so, as your friend might not be in a position to listen to it.
Do not diminish their problems by comparing them to your own
Often, if we feel like we have dealt with similar situations, we tend to draw attention to those stories instead. Inadvertently, this might make your loved one feel as though you are diminishing their problems.
Assure them that help is available
Reiterate that although things seem complicated now, it can, and will get better. Let them know that a significant step towards recovery is asking for help. Tell them that it might be a good idea to speak with a mental health practitioner, as a therapist, counselor or psychiatrist might be better equipped to handle the situation. You can also always do a quick search online to look up available resources closest to your friend. You may, additionally, offer to accompany them to a mental health practitioner, as this might boost their morale and help them feel assured.
It is also likely that your loved one will act out during this time period. Mood swings often accompany mental illnesses. So, if your friend seems particularly nasty one day, know that it might not necessarily be because of something you did; rather, it could be because they are having a tough time controlling how they feel. Don’t take it personally; remember that your loved one’s illness can affect their behavior and communication skills. At the same time, set up boundaries for yourself to ensure because your mental health is just as important as theirs.
Check in on them afterward
While this conversation may have been a breakthrough, it is equally important to check in with them periodically. While it might be challenging to have frequent lengthy emotional conversations on a day to day basis due to work and other commitments, a simple text message asking them how they are doing will help them feel cared for, supported, and, most importantly, not alone.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” – Lao Tzu
Friendships tend to be one of the most intimate sources of support throughout our lives.
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