Chances are that someone that you care about has dealt with a mental illness at some point in their lives. Mental health issues like anxiety and depression are especially common, and if you’re not personally familiar with their effects, it can be difficult to know how to best support the people in your life who may be struggling with them. If your life, or that of someone you know, is significantly affected by mental health issues, it’s important to seek help from a mental health professional. If you’re looking for tips on how to encourage someone you know to seek therapy, check out our article on that here. Whether or not you decide to get professional help, having a supportive network of caring family and friends to provide listening ears and encouragement is essential to improve mental well-being. Here are some tips for being there for the ones in your life who may need a little extra support.
Do your homework
Everyone’s experiences of depression and anxiety are unique, but that doesn’t mean that learning more about these mental health concerns can’t help deepen our understanding and better equip us to support those who are coping with them. Although you may not know exactly how someone is feeling, the more you understand about the mental health issue that they’re dealing with, the more insight you’ll have into their experience. This will help you better understand why they might have cancelled on you last-minute more lately, shown up late to work 3 days in a row, or seem more on-edge than usual. If you are unfamiliar with depression and anxiety, do some research to deepen your understanding.
Lead with empathy, not sympathy
Sympathy is seeing someone struggle and feeling bad for them, while empathy is more “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” and imagining how they might be feeling. When trying to support someone, try and connect with something inside yourself that can relate to what they’re feeling (without shifting the focus too much onto yourself.) Maybe you have absolutely no idea about what they’re going through feels like, and that’s okay too. Try saying something like “wow, I can’t even imagine how painful that must be, but I’m so glad that you shared that with me.” You may be tempted to help them look on the bright side, but be careful not to underestimate the power of listening. When people are struggling, what they need most is empathetic support and validation that lets them know their feelings are acceptable – they don’t want or need advice or problem-solving (though this seems counterintuitive to many of us!). With depression and anxiety, you probably won’t be able to say anything that will make it all better – but letting that person know that you hear them and are there for them is extremely powerful in its own right.
Celebrate the little victories
Anxiety and depression can make everyday tasks feel incredibly daunting or even impossible. Rather than focusing on the ways that their depression or anxiety gets in the way of their functioning, help them feel good about what they are able to accomplish. For example, if they make it outside for a walk to get some sun or fresh air, let them know how proud you are that they’re doing their best to take care of themselves.
Ask them what they need
Sometimes, the best way to figure out how you can be helpful is to simply ask someone what they need. Could you take something off of their plate by picking up some groceries, tidying up the apartment, or scheduling their doctor’s appointment? Maybe the answer to that question is as simple as having someone sit down and keep them company, or maybe they’d rather have some space. If they don’t know the answer, that’s okay too. The fact that you asked lets them know that you’re there if and when they do need you.
When your mind is busy worrying about someone you care for, or thinking of ways you can help them, it it easy to lose touch with how you’re doing. Remember that in order to be a supportive friend or family member, you have to take care of yourself too. Supporting someone who is struggling can be emotionally demanding – you can feel proud of the support you provided, and also be tired and need rest. Don’t forget to check-in with yourself often – make sure you are taking care of yourself and setting and maintaining the boundaries you need to set to feel safe and happy.