How to know what NOT to say

As a friend, how do you know if you are suggesting the right thing? There is pressure not just for those suffering from mental and emotional challenges, but in those who are turned to as support systems as well. It is important to be able to step back and reflect on whether or not the advice that is given will ultimately do more harm than good. Interrobang spoke to counsellor and mental health co-ordinator Shirley Porter, to help understand what it means to be a helpful support system.

As an experienced mental health counsellor at Fanshawe, Porter has dealt with a consistent flow of students seeking support throughout the years. Those with a limited understanding of what mental illness is will often say hurtful things, despite intentions of doing well.

Phrases to avoid include, “It’s not that bad”, “You just need to get over it”, “Everybody has stress”.

These kind of sayings have the opposite effect on affected individuals, likely leading the person to believe that there is something wrong with them as an individual, rather than understanding the strength and impact of the psychiatric disorder over a person.

“‘Look on the bright side’, ‘Cheer up’, telling them to smile, saying, ‘You need to smile more’. Those things only darken the contrast of how the person feels instead, and what they wish they could do. And so, how can one smile when they feel like they’re dying inside,” Porter said. According to Porter, it is the additional pressure to put on a happy mask and be somebody opposite of who they are that makes things worse.

Trying to learn more about the mental and emotional challenges that a person is faced with and being non-judgemental, demonstrates respect and understanding.

Rather than forcing optimism on an individual, show you care through the willing actions in asking questions such as, “What do you need? How can I help?”

Frequently, individuals suffering from mental health problems feel misunderstood, feel that what they are saying has been misjudged and misheard.

Being a good friend means listening to what the individuals have to say, and demonstrating that the messages have been heard.

“Not being afraid to go there and say, ‘Yeah, this is really tough’, ‘I can see you’re having a hard time’, or ‘wow, how are you getting through this? Is there anything I can do to help’, ‘Can I go with you to set-up your appointment, or do you want me to set that up for you’, just being that compassionate, caring person, who is hearing them, and not trying to minimize,” Porter said.

Being empathetic by showing support and care is the best way affected individuals can benefit.

Depression, anxiety and mental illness do not have quick or easy solutions. They are constant battles that require medication, counselling and a strong support system. Without the three, giving up will look enticing. Often, tough cases come across where affected individuals refuse to seek counselling, or to take prescribed medication.

Porter said it is essential that support systems never give up, and especially not to discourage getting help.

“Of course we would love to fix it [and] make it all better because we don’t want to see somebody we care about hurting. But we unfortunately can’t fix it for someone else. They have to be an active participant, often with other people, with professionals to find a way out, and I think if you’re caring and non-judgemental, and asking what you can do, I don’t think you can do wrong with that.”

Sometimes the situation goes beyond what any one individual is capable of alone. Calling for help from emergency responders is a must if the individual poses a danger to themselves or others.

“It’s really important to get them help immediately if there is imminent danger. I know sometimes people are afraid, saying, ‘This is my friend, they made me promise not to tell’, but I’d rather live with a friend who is angry with me than a friend who has died because I said nothing.”

We all need a little help sometimes, and that is perfectly okay.