Support is incredibly individual so what may be right for one person, may be wrong for another. As everyone’s needs are different, when we are in a supporting role, we should aim to ask and never assume what the other person needs.
When we assume and do ‘helpful’ things out of what we think is best, it’s not always going to be what the other person perceives as support. As a result, this can leave us feeling unappreciated and resentful. Truly being helpful is asking what someone needs, how we can best support them, and doing that.
There is no magic formula for this type of thing. Asking can make things easier for you.
If the person you’re supporting doesn’t know what they need, you can ask them if it would be okay to offer some suggestions to see if any of them would be helpful. If they say yes, this may look like asking:
– “Would it help to talk things through a bit more?”
– “Would you prefer me to continue to sit with you and just be here to listen, or would you prefer some advice/practical help, or to do something to take your mind off everything for a bit?”
– “If I took the initiative to do _______ for you while you process everything that’s happening, would that be helpful?”
– “Do you think you might need additional support to help you get through this?” (If they say yes, ask if they need help finding that support, and if they would like you to go with them to first appointments etc – if you have the capacity to do so).
– You can also try asking them what sort of things have helped them get through difficult moments in the past.
In any case, refrain from offering advice and/or your opinion unless either they ask for it or you ask for permission first. Remember, you can’t fight this battle for them, they have to learn to fight for themselves and listening without problem-solving is one of the greatest gifts we can give. Sometimes all people want is just to be heard and have their struggles acknowledged & validated (not fixed); sometimes just being there with them and being present is enough.
Other ways we can support someone who’s struggling:
- Continue to show up and be there for them consistently & without judgement (even if this looks like just checking in with them over message once a week — keeping your word is super important, try not to over-promise and under-deliver). When you’re going through a dark period, it can seem like nobody cares and nobody is there to help. Therefore, checking in with someone consistently is a simple but important way to help them feel less alone in the situation they’re dealing with.
- Continue to let them know that you believe in them — that you see their courage and strength even if they may not be able to at the moment, that you know healing is possible for them even if they don’t, that they are important to you and loved by you regardless. Hold on to their hope for them until they can find it again themselves.
- Continue to connect with them in spontaneous, light-hearted ways. Take them to the beach, invite them over for tea, go over to their place for an arts and craft night – infuse the difficult moments with playfulness and create small pockets of joy with them. Remind them there is more to them than their struggles, show them that you accept them and want them around regardless of where they’re at; that they are still the person you love and value — it can be just as healing. Creating something enjoyable for them to look forward to can help boost their mood and brightening someone’s day is one of the ways we can pass on hope. Support doesn’t have to look like serious talks and holding another person’s pain. Joy matters when things are tough. Giving them some of your time even if it just looks like, “can I come and spend some time with you” can be such a valuable and meaningful way to support someone.
- Continue to honour your own capacity and look after yourself too. You can’t pour from an empty cup. If you need to set a boundary to help with this, that is absolutely okay, just make sure you communicate it clearly with them. Let them know it’s about you and not them, and that in the long-run it will help you continue to be there for them. I.e. “I love you and I really wish I could be there for you the way you need me to at the moment AND I’m struggling myself and need to take a step back for a bit. I am still here for you but it will look like [insert what you can manage] for a while”…don’t just leave them hanging & if you have to take a massive step back, link them with other supports. Boundaries (used correctly) allow us to protect and maintain our connections (if they don’t, they’re not boundaries, they’re walls) so if the relationship is important to you, don’t be afraid to use them. The boundaries we set don’t have to be permanent, we can adjust and change them as needed.
People heal in connection. Thank you for showing up and walking alongside your partner, friend, and/or family member during their mental health struggles. We know it isn’t easy, but showing up imperfectly is better than not showing up at all. Try to remember that who they are in this moment is not the whole of who they are.
The first step towards recovery is hope. How can we fly the flag of hope for ourselves or for those around us that may be struggling?
This may look like helping someone uncover the barriers preventing hope and then helping them navigate them.
P.s. It can be really difficult to find the right balance between having the space to open up about the hard things and not having it be a defining feature of our friendship/relationship. Prioritising positive shared experiences like those suggested above may help with this. Joy and pain don’t cancel each other out, they can exist fully alongside each other.