How to have a supportive talk with a loved one
Depressive disorders, anxiety disorders or comorbidity of the two are global and growing mental health problems. You might even personally know someone who struggles daily with these adversities.
Nevertheless, many people still find it difficult to understand what these mental disorders really are or know what to say to adequately support their friend or loved one.
Unfortunately, there are still many misconceptions out there too, which may lead to a lack of empathy and an expressed callousness. Even if these remarks are unintentional, many depressed or anxious individuals might perceive the remarks as negative and may make them feel worse.
Before we get into how to be more supportive, let’s name a few common unsupportive or anger-provoking phrases, which one should avoid uttering:
› "Cheer up"
› "Stop feeling sorry for yourself"
› "You brought it on yourself"
› "What are you depressed about?"
› "Stop thinking about it, just think positively"
› "Many people are worse off than you and they are not depressed..."
Dismissive sentences like these humiliate, paralyse and belittle one’s emotional pain, thus diminishing one’s sense of self even more.
How can you be more supportive?
First of all, and perhaps a given, treat your friend or loved one as an individual, who deserves respect, dignity and compassion. Each situation and individual is unique and may have different needs at certain points in time.
Regardless of this, we all want to be loved, cared for and feel like we belong and are important, so let’s start from there. Continue your approach by actively listening to the other person.
How to actively listen?
Start by keeping eye contact, open your body posture, lean in a little towards your loved one, nod, and use a friendly, calm tone of voice. Let your body language communicate that you are genuinely interested in having the conversation and are fully attentive.
Focus on the speaker’s perspective, needs and feelings. Avoid being dismissive and judgemental of the expressed thoughts and feelings.
Ask open questions if you do not understand something or are uncertain about the way you understood it, e.g. "Could you explain what you mean by..." or “How did that make you feel?” Paraphrasing the message you hear makes the other person feel more understood.
Listen to your gut reaction. It will help release memories of when you had a similar feeling or experience and that will help you empathise more. Acknowledge the emotions felt, even if you disagree or do not understand them. These feelings are personal and subjective, which originate from how the other person perceives things, not how you do.
Empathise with your loved one
Emotions are real and painful. Empathy makes the other person feel a little relieved and accepted, which can definitely also improve your relationship. Feeling that you are present and supportive conveys a sense of hope and loosens the sense of loneliness felt.
Often, being able to express painful feelings and thoughts and have someone listen attentively is really appreciated and perceived as more helpful than when given advice or opinions.
Reassure your loved one
Giving reassurance is also very supportive. You can reassure the other person that you care and that they are important to you. Reassure that they are not alone; you will be there for them when they need it and that they can always depend on you.
It is imperative that you follow through with what you tell them. If your friend or loved one feels like a burden, then reassure them that they are loved. It might feel like a struggle now, but together and with professional help, they can overcome it and feel better.
Ask specific questions
Additionally, ask specific questions to find out how you can help. For example:
› "How can I relieve your stress right now?"
› "Do you want me to come with you to a doctor/psychologist?"
› "What can I do to make you feel better today?"
› "What do you need from me so you will feel more supported?"
Prioritise your own needs too
As much as providing support is important, you also need to take care for yourself and fulfil your own needs. Make sure that it is indeed support that you are providing and that you have not taken on board too much responsibility or become too over-protective, which could lead developing dependency and losing the incentive to change.
Encourage them to seek professional help
You cannot solve mental health issues on your own. Your friend of loved one needs professional help, which you may not be equipped to provide. Suggest and encourage, avoid pushing, forcing or threatening them to seek psychological help. It will not only be crucial to the healing process, it will also benefit your well-being and your relationship with them.