Help Me Help You: A Guide for Loved Ones

Clients often share with me that they wish their loved one knew how to help them through a tough moment with mental health. Whether they have trouble asking for the help, or if the loved one has trouble offering it, the end result is the same — idleness. There is the client, stuck in the problem, and there is their loved one, not sure what to do. If either of these examples sounds familiar to you, keep reading for tips!

Mental illness presents many coping challenges, particularly because it is “invisible” compared to physical ailments. We know how to heal a sprained ankle—RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation). But we can't put an icepack to our foreheads and expect anxious thoughts to disappear. Instead, we wind up in a cycle of experiencing the pain because we need help but we are not in a position to receive it. Below are some strategies you might consider trying.

For helping your loved one…

  1. Listen. It's really that easy. We all want to be heard. It's okay to say “I don't understand how you're feeling right now” as long as you follow it up with “would you be able to explain it to me?” If they're willing, let them share without judgment. Just lending an ear can show your loved one you care.
  2. Validate. After you have provided them an opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings, offer support through validation. For instance, “that sounds really stressful, I'm sorry you're feeling that way,” or “I can imagine that would make me feel overwhelmed, too.”
  3. We all want to be heard, and validation is how we feel heard.

  4. Ask. Make yourself available by asking, “What can I do to help?” They might be able to give you a quick answer, but don't appear frustrated if they can't voice it right away. More times than not, your loved one simply wants to have someone there so they don't feel alone. If they're not sure how you can help, refer back to #1 and #2 — listen and validate. You can't go wrong with either of those.
  5. Self-Care. Yes, it's called self-care but you can certainly help your loved one engage in a positive activity to help lift their mood. Take them to see a movie, go for a walk in a nearby park, or offer to play a board game. Anything that they typically enjoy, offer to do that activity with them. If you're not able to do so at that moment, schedule a date that they can look forward to.

For helping your loved one help you…

  1. Express. Before you can receive help, you have to first ask for it. Express your need by asking, “I am having trouble coping with [blank]. Do you have a few minutes so I can chat with you about it?” The important thing is to get some uninterrupted time in a comfortable area so that you feel safe communicating your thoughts.
  2. Explain. Your loved one can't help if they don't know what is going on or how you feel. It is normal to not know how to articulate your thoughts in the moment, but do your best to identify basic emotions that they have a general idea. You may begin by acknowledging that it is difficult to discuss this topic, but you appreciate their willingness to listen.
  3. Educate. Chances are your loved one probably isn't familiar with your mental health challenges. Help them understand by educating them on what it feels like to have a panic attack or what types of thoughts you have when your depression becomes stronger.
  4. Take this opportunity to teach them what you want them to know for next time.

  5. Evaluate. After the difficult moment has passed, reflect on how “well” your loved one helped. Remember, this is not a way for you to judge them, but to identify specific things they did that made you feel better or things that you may ask them to change. Either way, verbalize appreciation for their effort and willingness to try.

These tips are not a “fix-all” for communication barriers, but they certainly can point you in the right direction. I encourage you to try them out and adapt your word choices as appropriate for the situation. If these have been helpful to you, share them with your friends and family so that others can benefit, too!

What are some ways you have found helpful to support your loved one or communicate your needs? Let us know!

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