If you have struggled with your mental health you will no doubt have faced a situation where you know the people around you just don’t get what it is you’re going through. They say things like “Try to be more positive” or “Maybe if you made a bit more effort…”. If you have heard anything along these lines then you will know the kick-in-the-gut feeling that comes along with it. Why can’t they see that you ARE trying? Why don’t they understand how it feels?
Conversely, if you are supporting someone with mental illness you will no doubt have faced a similar situation. Why don’t they realise that you can’t have the same conversation about how they’re feeling anymore? Why don’t they understand that there are only so many times you can reassure them? Why can’t they see the toll this is taking on you too?
Both these situations are different sides of the same coin. The supporter can’t understand the perspective of the sufferer if they’ve never been in that place themselves. On the same note, the sufferer can’t understand how draining it can be to support someone with mental illness if they’ve never done it either.
So how do we find a way for both parties to feel heard, seen and supported?
First of all, we need to talk about acceptance. Trying to explain mental illness to someone who has never experienced it first-hand is like trying to explain colour to someone who can’t see or taste to someone who has no tongue, and yet we get caught up in trying to get our feelings across in this way. The feelings surrounding mental illness are so visceral and intense that we try to use words to express those feelings to those around us an while it is so important to talk about how you are feeling, you also need to accept that others might never be able to fully grasp what you are going through. Accept that the language might not be there to adequately get your thoughts and feelings across.
Secondly, we need to adjust our communication style. Talking about such an emotive subject opens up space for blame, shame and misunderstanding. Try using ‘I’ phrases when explaining how you feel…”I feel like I need some extra support today” or “I feel like I need some space to recharge right now. Do you mind if we talk about this a little later?”.
Supporters can often feel burn-out and need some time to refill their own cup before being able to fully support you again. This is OK, please don’t take it personally. It’s much better to have someone supporting you who is in a healthy frame of mind. It’s a good idea to have a number of people that you can talk to if your primary supporter is feeling burned out.
There is a fine balance to be struck between those suffering with mental illness and those supporting. By being honest and mindful of language you can learn to communicate much more effectively and ensure that everyone’s mental health is protected and cared for.
Mentalhealth.org.uk have published these eight tips for supporting someone with mental health concerns:
Eight tips for talking about mental health
1. Set time aside with no distractions
It is important to provide an open and non-judgemental space with no distractions.
2. Let them share as much or as little as they want to
Let them lead the discussion at their own pace. Don’t put pressure on them to tell you anything they aren’t ready to talk about. Talking can take a lot of trust and courage. You might be the first person they have been able to talk to about this.
3. Don’t try to diagnose or second guess their feelings
You probably aren’t a medical expert and, while you may be happy to talk and offer support, you aren’t a trained counsellor. Try not to make assumptions about what is wrong or jump in too quickly with your own diagnosis or solutions.
4. Keep questions open ended
Say “Why don’t you tell me how you are feeling?” rather than “I can see you are feeling very low”. Try to keep your language neutral. Give the person time to answer and try not to grill them with too many questions.
5. Talk about wellbeing
Exercise, having a healthy diet and taking a break can help protect mental health and sustain wellbeing. Talk about ways of de-stressing and ask if they find anything helpful.
6. Listen carefully to what they tell you
Repeat what they have said back to them to ensure you have understood it. You don’t have to agree with what they are saying, but by showing you understand how they feel, you are letting them know you respect their feelings.
7. Offer them help in seeking professional support and provide information on ways to do this
You might want to offer to go the GP with them, or help them talk to a friend or family member. Try not to take control and allow them to make decisions.
8. Know your limits
Ask for help or signpost if the problem is serious. If you believe they are in immediate danger or they have injuries that need medical attention, you need to take action to make sure they are safe.