- Offer your undivided attention
- Never underestimate the power of listening
- Avoid saying you ‘know how they feel’
- Offer to be available again to listen
- Don’t try to be the ‘fixer’
- Encourage them to reach out to their GP if necessary
One of the most positive societal developments in recent years has been the progress made in breaking down some of the stigma surrounding mental health.
January can be a difficult month for many – the start of a new year, long, dark days, Covid and other health and mental health concerns, and media references to ‘Blue Monday’. While the concept of Blue Monday – supposedly the ‘most depressing day of the year’ - has been widely challenged and debunked, mental health experts agree it provides an opportunity for people to check in on those who are struggling with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.
Here, Priory experts offer their advice to people trying to support their loved ones:
The most important step is to make sure that you focus on what the person is telling you, says Priory consultant psychiatrist Dr Paul McLaren. “Don’t underestimate the power of listening. Giving someone your open and undivided attention can make a real difference.
“Put down your phone or laptop, look them in the eye, and just listen. Do not try to lighten the tone or change the subject. Stay with them and their pain.”
Priory psychotherapist Dee Johnson cautions against trying to relate what they are telling you to your own experiences, as you might be tempted to do in a casual conversation; “There comes a point when the helpful intent behind ‘self-relating’ can be counter-productive. None of our narratives are identical. It’s not helpful to say ‘I know how you feel’ when in reality you don’t.
“Without meaning to, you can accidentally reduce their hope and diminish their concerns, as they will make comparisons with what you are saying. If they are really vulnerable, this could further embed the false belief they have that they are useless.”
Dee explains that for someone who is struggling with depression or anxiety, simply telling someone else that they are struggling is a very hard step so “it is really important to thank someone for having the trust and courage to speak up, because it will have taken that person immense emotional and physical effort to do this”.
She says that you should be careful not to push them to go too far or too fast after this first conversation; “It’s about patience and not trying to pressure someone. It’s very easy to make them feel overwhelmed and not good enough, and if that happens, they may start pretending they are better than they truly are just so as not to disappoint you and be seen as a failure.”
Dr McLaren also cautions against the idea that, as a listener, you are the “fixer”.
“You don’t have to fix it. People know when they feel understood, and that can be a big relief.”
He says it is important to make sure your conversation is the beginning of you giving them more support; “If they bare their soul, then don’t do a runner. Check-in with them again very soon. They may have more they need to say. Listening is harder than it sounds but it is well worth the effort.”
Dee agrees that you should be thinking about giving more support after the initial conversation; “Struggling with your mental health is a lonely, frightening, isolating place to be, so keeping connected to someone, even if they may be a bit resistant or seem ungrateful at first, is really constructive support.
“Regular check-ins help, while making it clear you do not demand a response. Also, be mindful not to overwhelm the person. Keep your promises and don’t over-commit to any support you cannot maintain.”
Dee adds that it can be helpful sometimes to be willing to help them find professional help if it is needed; “Help them make the calls to the GP or others, or appointments. Offer to go to the first session with them, even if that just means going along for the ride and waiting for them outside.”
To obtain professional mental health support, a person should contact their GP or a mental healthcare provider like Priory, who can guide them through the next steps.