What Does Social Support for Mental Health Look Like?
When noticing that a close one is going through a difficult time, we may feel compelled to help, but may not know how to go about it. A large temptation may be to take on their difficulties as if they are our own. But, this may feel like it leads to more frustration, is unhelpful, or even like it's too much. So, how can you be a supportive friend to someone who needs support without depleting yourself?
The following 5 components can help you provide the social support that someone going through a difficult time may need, in a way that is healthy and respectful for all involved.
Recognize the need for Help
Let's look at each one in more detail:
Make sure to take the initiative to make scheduled check-ins, instead of expecting your friend to reach out to you. Usually, the friend going through a difficult time may not reach out for fear of being a "burden" or simply not able to, even with an invitation. A simple hello text can show your support.
Communication during check-ins can be direct, making sure to ask specific questions rather than "are you ok?" Leave the questions open ended to invite your close one to share their feelings and thoughts. Make sure to give space and allow for pause so they can collect their thoughts and process. It can be difficult to concentrate, focus, or even really know how to communicate how you're feeling when you are going through a difficult time. It's ok if someone doesn't answer a question right away.
You also don't need to push questions, which may feel like an interrogation to someone who is struggling. Simply checking-in to let them know what you appreciate about them the most or letting them know you are thinking about them can also be powerful and an invite to share more.
The most powerful tool in empathy, compassion, or healing is presence.
An important aspect of offering support to someone is how we communicate. We can communicate our care most effectively when we are willing to be present, both to ourselves and the other person. Presence means directing your full attention to the present moment or conversation without distractions. This can look like having eye contact, putting away or turning off electronic devices or cell phones, putting aside distractions, making sure to finish or stop what you were doing before engaging with the other person, listening to the story without inserting yourself or your bias.
Presence also means knowing how long you are able to maintain attention without becoming fatigued. This looks like having healthy boundaries when it comes to your time. If you have time to spare, make sure you communicate how long (ex: saying directly that you have 15mins before needing to prepare to go to school or work, or saying "I need to leave at 2pm."). It is also important to make sure you are completing your own important tasks, you can set a mutually agreed upon time (ex: saying "In 20mins I can give the conversation more attention, I need to finish my work." or "I will have time at 4pm when I finish my dinner.")
Once you have set the time, keep it to the set time and duration, and consciously remove any distractions. Offering your full attention can take a lot of energy (ie there is such thing as compassion fatigue), and you can only offer it when you have the energy to spare. Giving to the point of losing attention or becoming fatigued can create miscommunications and produce frustration on both sides. This can lead to negative reactive behavior on both sides, and an unwillingness to be present.
Even just being present for a small moment can have a positive impact, communicating your support and strengthening your bond.
It’s important that your friend feels heard and understood. Allow the space to simply ‘hold’ someone’s story, without judgement or bias. Listening involves engaging actively by reflecting back how they feel and summarizing their thoughts. It's important to recognize that what they are experiencing is unique to them, and it's not yours. Simply being willing to listen to a person's story can have an immense positive impact.
Things to avoid: Minimizing, dismissing, debating, inserting your own bias or judgments on how they should feel or how they should be managing their condition; blaming; suggesting they may lack strength, resilience, or something is wrong with them.
Your best quality support and care will come from a place of abundance and strength. When you are well cared for and supported, you are much more able to provide for others. When you yourself are depleted, overwhelmed, or over exerted, this can create frustration, becoming reactive rather than responsive, feeling burdened or resentful towards the other person. You will be less likely to be able to give attention or listen, this can create tension, leading to miscommunications and negative impacts to your relationship.
If you find yourself wanting to help a close one, make sure you have your own outlets and scheduled times to relax or decompress. The idea is not to take on the difficulties your friend is facing, it is being willing to see your friend and be present to the circumstances. Witnessing someone else's pain or struggle can be difficult and you can be impacted. It is important to be willing to recognize your own limits, especially when there is a need for outside help.
Recognize the Need for Help
For the health and safety of both your friend & you, it's important to recognize when to call for help. Our best intentions may cause things to escalate or not effective at resolving the situation. There are situations when you need to realize you do not have the skills or the training to properly care for your loved one. Or when the situation puts dependents or vulnerable individuals at risk.
What to Recognize: Your friend went from being able to do daily tasks and take care of themselves, to suddenly having no ability to function or do their important daily tasks (ex: eating, preparing food, taking a shower, go to work, etc). They are making threats of violence or displaying aggression and keep escalating. They are making threats of self-harm and escalating to the point of acting on it. They are making threats of suicide and escalating or showing hopelessness to the point of not being able to care for themselves. Other signs of crisis that may need external help are: showing extreme anxiety or paranoia to the point of not caring for themselves, or harming themselves or others; Not sleeping for more than 3 days straight; Withdrawing from life (no longer doing daily activities, isolating, sleeping much more that usual to the point of missing appointments, events, or work); A change in personality; a sudden or drastic change in personality; seeing or hearing things that aren't there and showing an altered sense of reality (specifically if this is new or escalating into erratic behavior; or especially after a recent traumatic event); a sudden increase in reckless behavior; not able to care for themselves after a recent traumatic event
Who to call:
Call 911 if the crisis is a life-threatening emergency
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Call 800-273-TALK (8255)
Crisis Text Line – Text NAMI to 741-741
National Domestic Violence Hotline – Call 800-799-SAFE (7233)
National Sexual Assault Hotline – Call 800-656-HOPE (4673)
Following these components can give you a good foundation for offering your support to a close one struggling with their mental health. It is also important to remember that being a good social support does not mean being a person's Therapist, Counselor, or Advisor. Treatment and Psychological care should be left to a Mental Healthcare Provider or Professional. Be encouraging when your close one would like to do more for their mental health and are ready to reach out to a provider. It's important that a person take the steps on their healing journey through their own conviction. Choice and self-motivation creates powerful transformation in all aspects of health.