As humans, we are wired for survival and connection, and we need connection with others in order to survive. However, when struggling with anxiety and depression, many people’s default is to isolate, hide out, and keep their feelings inside, so as not to be judged. The problem is, that connection and support is what is needed most; being able to reach out for support when experiencing mental health symptoms is directly related to recovery; there are numerous research studies to support this.
However, many clients with whom I work do not have adequate supports, and as a result, end up feeling extremely alone and isolated. As if they are the only ones experiencing the difficulty getting up and moving in the morning, random bouts of anxiety during the day that seem to come out of nowhere, and insomnia when all that’s needed is sleep… the list goes on.
While awareness about mental health is increasing, a stigma remains, and deters honesty with friends and family about what’s really going on. People fear being dismissed, minimized, judged, or even ignored. It functions to exacerbate negative beliefs already swirling around: I’m not good enough, I’m a bad person, I’m all alone, etc. To be clear, no one is responsible for anyone else’s emotions. It is not anyone’s job to fix a friend or family member’s mental health. It’s not even possible. What is needed is empathy and support. The problem on both sides is this: people who are struggling are afraid to ask for support due to reasons above, and people who are around those struggling don’t know what to say. Here are some suggestions for how to be a good support.
Here is what NOT to say to someone experiencing mental health struggles:
Dismissive and minimizing comments: “Oh, you’ll be fine.” "You’re strong, you can get through it.” You’re stronger than you think.”
“Just get over it.” “It’s not even a big deal.”
Judgmental comments or questions: “You’ve been feeling that way for awhile, what is the problem? Just move on.” “That happened forever ago, how is that still bothering you?”
Fix it or directive questions/comments: “You should just ______.” “Why don’t you _______.”
Story stealing: “Well I feel that way too and let me tell you….”
What to say when you don’t know what to say:
Use open ended questions: “I’m so sorry to hear that. Can you tell me more about what’s going on?” “How have you been handling it?” “What has been helpful?” “Are you feeling so low that it’s hard to function the way you’d like?”
Name what you hear: “It sounds really difficult, and extremely hard to deal with.” “You sound really sad.” “I hear that it feels impossible right now.”
Be honest: “I don’t know the right thing to say, but thank you for telling me.” “I’m here to listen, I don’t know the right thing to say, but I’m happy to hear what is happening with you so we can figure something out together if you like.”
Ask: “What would be helpful for you right now?” “What do you need from me to feel supported? “
Why this matters:
In Brené Brown’s research on shame and vulnerability, she found that empathy builds connection and is the antidote to shame, while secrecy, silence, and judgment exacerbate shame. Empathy is not sympathy nor pity; it’s not “feeling bad for” someone. It’s connecting with them to let them know you hear and understand his or her experience. It’s not lecturing them, it’s not fixing it, it’s not telling them about everything you would do. Unless they ask you for that. Having empathy is not just listening, although that’s a big part of it, it is being physically and emotionally connected in the space you share in your relationship. To many people, this may feel like they aren’t doing anything to “help.” Many times being with is so much more helpful and supportive than doing for. As humans we are wired for connection, and empathy provides the pathway for connection. The shoe may also be on the other foot at some point, and you’ll want them to be there for you, knowing how it feels to have walked a mile in your shoes.