Before we dive straight in and start dissecting mental health, I think it’s essential to address how to be supportive of those who struggle. We all know someone who’s experienced trauma or suffers from depression, etc. What can YOU do to help? I believe the below image is a perfect breakdown of ways people react to abuse and mental illness, so I’m going to expand on it a little.
When you are lucky enough to have someone trust you sufficiently to share their story with you, please remember:
- Do not judge;
- Do not make their story about you;
- Do not make them feel guilty for what they’ve experienced or how they feel;
- Do not ask for more than they are willing to share
Instead, here are a few appropriate questions to ask. *It is perfectly okay to not have questions or a reaction right away. Just make it clear you do not judge them, and you appreciate their vulnerability. Take time to process what you’ve learned and come back for a discussion when you’re ready.*
- What can I do to help and support you?
- What does your mental illness look like, and how does it feel for you?
- What are some of your triggers so I’m aware you’re having an episode?
- If you are having an episode, what would you like me to do?
- Is there anything you would like me to avoid doing/saying?
- Would it be best for me to try and help you work through an episode, or would you prefer to work through things on your own?
- Is there a particular time of year you struggle the most?
I speak from experience when I say there are few things more difficult than allowing yourself to be vulnerable and opening up to those you care for. You probably will ask yourself: “Will they judge me?” “Do they think differently of me now?” However, how the person sharing feels at the end of recounting their story is totally dependent on you. It all starts with YOU. You can change everything just by listening and letting them know they matter to you no matter what they’ve been through or continue to struggle with.
It’s pretty simple really. Nightmares, body image issues, trouble letting others in, feeling vulnerable and scared, etc. are all things people experience at some point or another. So, think about how these situations affect you and then multiply it by 100. You can imagine how heavy that feels. Welcome to the world of those struggling with mental health issues. Now, think about how you would like someone to comfort you in these moments and bam! That’s the answer. We are ordinary people who feel and react to everyday situations more intensely than a person who hasn’t experienced abuse or is battling mental illness.
That being said, there are a few things to be mindful of. I don’t like to be touched for multiple reasons, but it all stems from the abuse I experienced as a child. Even with family members. For example, I feel vulnerable if my mother hugs me without me initiating it. Keep that in mind when comforting someone as that may be a trigger for them. It is best to ask for consent, “Is it okay if I hug you?” It is a natural reaction to touch someone when comforting them but this can be triggering and unwelcome. The same applies to someone who is having an anxiety attack as a result of a bad dream or flashback. If they choose not to open up or allow you to touch them, know that a lot of us are very guarded.
People have walls up for many reasons, and it isn’t always a result of abuse or mental illness. However, it’s understandable that someone who was or is abused or suffers from mental illness would be guarded because they’re afraid. We’ve had a lifetime of pain and judgment. It is incredibly difficult to let people in when the people who were supposed to love and protect you ended up being the ones who did the most damage. What’s to say you won’t be the next person to hurt me? I know it’s a sad way to look at things, but I promise it is a defense mechanism and has nothing to do with you.
I am an extremely open person. There are very few things I won’t share with people. The reason I share my story so openly is all thanks to my amazing support system. I am very fortunate to have people in my life that do not judge me. Unfortunately, not everyone is as lucky as I am. I hope that you can be the person who makes a difference in someone’s life.
When someone chooses to share their story, all they need to know is that you still care for them. Maybe you won’t know what to say initially, and that’s okay. The most valuable thing you can give them is a listening ear and to let them know they are safe and loved.
It hasn’t always been easy for me. It took YEARS for me to get this far, years of therapy, and slowly speaking up. You will get there, too. I promise it gets easier. And for those who are lucky enough to hear their story, the support you need to give will come more naturally over time.
This week I urge you to share a part of your story with someone, even if it’s with me. You are more than welcome to email me at any time – firstname.lastname@example.org. Baby steps, we all have to start somewhere.