How to help a hurting loved one: Tips to empower an individual on their healing journey
Take a moment to consider the individuals in your life. Perhaps the coworkers you collaborate with from day to day, the friends you reach out to every week, or the loved ones who hold a special place in your heart have flashed by in your mind. At any given time, one in five of these individuals is suffering with a mental health concern[i]. You may have previously considered that your friend, colleague, kin, or partner might be suffering, but if you are not a trained mental health clinician, chances are you may not have known how to help. The following are a set of tips to empower you in being alert to the mental health suffering of the individuals around you and how you can be supportive and encouraging in their growth process.
The recognition that a loved one might need help can be daunting, and even scary. It is important to be calm in the process to not jump to conclusions. Instead of spiraling towards the worst-case scenario, try to remain calm. Further, impulsively approaching the individual can cause you to seem insensitive and aggressive and only heighten the problem at hand.
Take your time to consider the symptoms, your relationship, and the context and rest-assured that your patience and good intentions will pay off in the end.
There are hundreds of mental health concerns, and your job as a loved one is not to become an expert in diagnosis. However, when someone you know is suffering and you are noticing potentially troublesome symptoms, it is helpful to decipher if those signs align with a mental health illness. For example, you may notice changes in social engagement, substance use, or daily habits (e.g., sleeping, hygiene). Perhaps you may notice that they are having trouble holding conversations, concentrating, or functioning at school or work. You may also notice sudden or extreme mood changes or a shift thought patterns such as conversations about death or suicide. Familiarizing yourself with symptoms can help you to understand what you may be concerned about and can better equip you to express yourself.
Be respectful and patient
If you decide to approach an individual to share your concerns, please be sure to reflect on your intentions. If the primary rationale is not to promote healing, reconsider if you are ready to spark dialogue at all. It is not appropriate to command or demand that your friend or family member seek help immediately. It’s quite possible that you have noticed the symptoms before they have and you may be the first person to highlight the potential problem. Even if the individual is aware, they may not be ready to seek help. Moreover, mental health is a private and personal aspect of identity, regardless of your positive intentions, they do not owe you honor of disclosure. If your loved one chooses to be open with you, be grateful. Ask how you can help in their process, and be cautious to not overtake their control. Also, in understanding their right to privacy, consider thanking them for their courage and willingness to share with you. If an individual is uninterested in the conversation, it is essential to respect their wishes. Instead of slamming the door shut, it may be helpful to share that if they do wish to talk in the future, they are welcome to share with you. This method honors their autonomy and readiness in their healing process.
If an individual chooses to embark on this discussion, caution usurping the conversation. Yes, you may have waited quite some time to understand the concern and consider how to address them with care and respect, however, be mindful to not overpower your loved one. You can give them the gift of having someone who cares to hear about their unique experience. Be careful to not bypass their unique story by making connections to others’ experiences. You may even recognize a connection to your own experience and may want to share to establish a connection, however, sharing this prematurely may undermine their personal narrative. You may feel equipped with hotlines, books, or a list of community providers and although these are excellent sources of support, it is important to take the time to thoroughly listen before jumping into showering your loved one with advice. It is truly a privilege to have someone share the intimate details of their healing process, be present and listen before making any steps.
One of the best ways to help someone who you know who may be experiencing mental health stress is to simply ask how you can help. It is unethical to morph into their mental health provider, however, that does not mean you cannot help along the way. Oftentimes individuals feel helpless in their journey and believe they will be told what to do and when by helpers. Asking how you can help empowers the individual to take charge of their journey, yet keeps them aware that you are a source of support.
If they are willing, one way you can aid a loved one is by helping them find a clinician or support group. This can be done by performing a simple google search of “mental health counselor” and your zip code or through the Psychology Today Directory[ii]. Similarly, an individual may wish to find a supportive community of individuals who can empathize with their struggles. You may not relate to their presenting concern; however, you may be able to help them find a local support group or online forum to help in this area[iii].
If your loved one is already enrolled in counseling, it is possible that they are working transforming change outside of the counseling room. Although you do not need to know confidential counseling information, you can share willingness to help practice new skills or behaviors. Considering your own personal awareness, it is also appropriate to share how you believe you could be of help as well. Regardless of how the individual chooses to seek support from you, it is most vital that (when possible) the choice is theirs.
In helping a friend or family member who is suffering from mental health concerns it is important to consider your boundaries. As discussed earlier, it is essential to be respectful and to not overstep your boundaries. Nevertheless, as in any healthy relationship, it is vital to consider your boundaries as well. Although they may open the door, be sure to not run through full speed and drag them along. Whenever possible, an individual should be empowered to lead their journey. Helping a hurt loved one can be emotionally draining. Consider what you are both willing and able to do. Be sure to not work harder on than they are at their own healing process. It is also not a journey you need to take on by yourself. If the person is willing, brainstorm who else can be a useful part of their support system. Depending on the concern, considering personal counseling for yourself can help you to reflect, process, and better equip you to help your loved one.