What can you do when someone reaches out to you?
Earlier this week, on June 14th 2020, the entire nation was sent into a frenzy upon hearing of the demise of famed actor Sushant Singh Rajput who died of suicide. According to the EconomicTimes, suicide is the leading cause for over 300 non covid19 deaths during the lockdown period. The pandemic has surely affected the nation's mental health the and aggravated emotional issues because of added external pressures like financial strain, uncertainty, isolation and lack of human contact.
His untimely demise sparked intense discourse on various topics like nepotism, bollywood politics etc, but mainly, on mental health. This has forced the people of India to acknowledge the importance of very neglected mental health care. Mental health, which has perpetually been an uncomfortable, stigmatized subject , has now gained immense prominence as a result the of the rising suicide rate, covid 19 pandemic and the corresponding lockdown which has affected most people.
However, this has also led to a seriously harmful phenomena which needs to be addressed. Individuals who are not mental health professionals and do not have experience, background or qualificatiins related to the field, are seen opening up their hearts and inboxes for whoever wants to talk about their issues. Many people are urging their peers to reach out to them. While their heart is in the right place, it can cause more damage than harm as these untrained/ unqualified people migh say or do things that may invalidate their striggles and further isolate them even more. While it is necessary to have a support system and talk to your family, friends and peers, it also important to understand due to lack of training and knowledge, they may not be able to identify warning signs, symptoms of intense distress and mental illnesses and/or tools required to cope with extreme feelings or huge life problems which is why, many problems can go unnoticed. Only licensed, or qualified practitioners have the cognitive and structural resources to identify symptoms, make diagnoses and provide treatments, solutions, medications and tools to cope with distress.
So what can you, as a non- mental health professionalprofessional do, when someone reaches out to you and wants to share their grievances with you? Here's a comprehensive list of do's and don't' s!
Don't make judgments or say things like you did that wrong or it is a result of this thing that you did or decision you made. Were all humans who make mistakes and most of the time, aware of thdm and have significant contributions to the problems were facing. When someone reaches out to you, they're not looking for someone to point them out to them, they're just looking for support to get through the issue(s).
Don't give advice. When someone is sharing something personal, it tends to bring up a lot of emotions in a person. Giving advice which may lead to decisions making in an emotional state is highly dangerous and can backfire as it is a well known idea that one must not make decisions in extreme emotional states, be it happy or sad. Also, giving advice can make the person defensive and act as a communication barrier.
Don't talk over them. Just listen. Talking over someone when they're sharing something personal may come across as condescending and make a person feel unheard and undermined. You may also unintentionally, project your emotions, feelings, biases upon them which might do more harm than good.
Don't talk to toxic people you have successfully left behind. Many a times, toxic people from your past may use talking as a way to wiggle themselves back into your lives. Remember, you can choose whom to acknowledge. You are not responsible for anyone. Prioritize your safety and boundaries by protecting yourself from such people.
Don't indulge in religious discourse when talking about feelings and emotions unrelated to religion. While it's true that people can find peace and happiness in spirituality and religion, it doesn't mean the absence of negative feelings. It's natural to experience negative feelings. These feeling need to acknowledged and expressed in a healthy manner. Religion/spirituality are one of many need of a human. They don't necessarily provide a person with emotional security.
Don't victim blame. No one chooses to be part of a difficult situation. You may not agree with the person but that doesn't make their feelings void. Practise empathy and acknowledge their feelings.
Educate yourself about warning signs, symptoms.
Validate their experiences. A simple, "that must feel so (enter expressed feeling)" can make a world of a difference.
Avoid using clichés like "you should be grateful, there are people who go through worse" or "cheer up, deal with it, be strong" as they send the message that vulnerability is weak and abnormal.
Most importantly, if they show signs of intense distress, self harm, suicidal thought, which may be in the form expression of extreme or strong emotion or, immediately redirect them to a trained/qualified/licensed mental health professional. You could salvage a life.
Keep your privilege and biases in check and constantly update your belief systems to accommodate new experiences and information. Be mindful of the fact that you may not necessarily understand what someone is going through but that doesn't make their experiences untrue.
Just listen, saying something isn’t always necessary, just sharing the same space is sometimes good enough to show that you are htere for them. Sometimes, silence is golden.
Prioritize you own mental health and recognize the extent of your mental capacity. You may not always have the emotional space to listen to someone. Learn to ask, have firm boundaries. Assertiveness is a crucial life skill that must be practised. Be honest. Let them know that you are overwhelmed too or simply unavailable for emotional labor. Again, you are not responsible for them.
The most important of all, keep a list of legitimate and competent mental health practiioners/experts handy. If certain issues feel overwhelming, you can always refer to them for guidance. Remember, therapy is not just for people with mental illnesses but also for people who can't seem to find solutions to their problems on their own. There's no shame in asking for help, it may transform someone's life!