One of the most sensitive aspects of interacting with a friend or loved one who is troubled by mental health problems is the ‘help’ we try to offer. For most of us, who aren’t trained in the mental health department, this help comes in the form of conversations and what we say to comfort the person and make them feel better.
Now, while our intention in trying to bring them comfort may be good, most of us are unable to convey it or extend the right kind of support, by failing to choose our words wisely. So instead of helping out, we often end up doing unintentional damage. So we got in touch with counselling psychologist Tanvii Bhandari who is also associated with Untangle as a therapist, to help us understand and navigate through such situations better.
“When someone shares anything they’re going through in the mental health space, they are in a very vulnerable space and they’re being extremely brave by sharing it with you. It’s basically like exposing a wound. It’s not fun for them, it’s scary and they really don’t want you poking the wound. But a lot of us end up doing just that by not being good listeners and by not being respectful of the person who is sharing their troubles with us,” Tanvii tells MensXP.
That’s when people end up saying all the wrong things. Tanvii helps us out by sharing some examples of such statements which should be avoided at all costs.
1. “Oh my god, I went through the same thing!”
2. “Oh you know, this happens to everybody, so many people feel like this.”
3. “This is how XYZ got out of it.”
4. “You just do this and you’ll be out of this.”
5. “Have you tried this…that…and this…”
Tanvii tells us that when we give these aforementioned ‘helpful’ suggestions and try to be supportive while attempting to convey the message that ‘you’re not alone’, that isn’t what we end up communicating. Instead, we end up making them feel more isolated as if to imply that they are at fault for feeling the way they are feeling.
Elucidating on what the other person might be seeking from us instead, Tanvii adds, “What they really want from us is to listen to them and say ‘I’m here for you’, ‘What can i do for you’. If the person asks, ‘Am I the only one going through this’, that’s when you bring out your stories and say ‘No you’re not the only one going through this, there are others.’”
When it comes to giving any sort of advice, Tanvii iterates that unless the friend or loved one directly asks for it, we shouldn’t impose our suggestions on them. But, “If they ask for suggestions, you can say something like, ‘You know this worked for me when I went through this, maybe you can give it a try too.’ This is a very respectful way of putting this across. Instead we end up dismissing, isolating and making them feel shitty about what they’re going through by not being mindful of our words.”
Tanvii further shares that accountability forms a very important part of therapy. As a therapist she always makes her clients become accountable for what they feel. However, she cautions that as a friend, if we make them feel bad by holding them responsible for their ‘sorry state of mind’ we will only be sending them down a darker hole. On the other hand, “In therapy I’m not just making them confront what they can do differently, I’m also making them understand the things that were out of their control and came in the way,” Tanvii adds.
Providing us with a very poignant explanation, Tanvii says, “A great analogy I like to use for mental health is physical fitness. So suppose I’m putting on weight, it could be for a myriad reasons that are very different from why you are putting on weight. So perhaps a heavy breakfast works for me, but you put on weight because of it. Or curd really suits me, but creates acidity in your body. We need to take these differences into account.”
“So imagine I tell a friend how unhappy I am with my body or the way I look. My friend then tells me about something she tried which helped her lose weight in three months. But when I try it and don’t see the same results, think about how I will feel, I’ll feel like shit. But instead when I choose to go to a nutritionist, an expert or a fitness trainer and they give me advice, that is usable advice, which will work and help me get where I want to go. But my friend’s personal experience wouldn’t make a similar difference.”
“Similarly when it comes to mental health and sharing personal experiences we need to put out that disclaimer – ‘This worked for me. You can try it if it resonates with you.’ We usually don’t put out that disclaimer and end up dismissing people instead.”
Elaborating further on other statements which can be detrimental to people suffering from mental illnesses, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, Tanvii says we must never say things like –
1. “You have too much free time on your hands, that’s why you’re depressed.”
2. “You are so indecisive, that is why you’re so anxious.”
3. “You don’t look at the positive things in life, that is why you’re sad.”
4. “You just need to look at the positive side of things.”
5. “You need to have a busy day.”
6. “Try a new hobby.”
“All of this is very easy for us to do, that’s why we recommend those things so confidently to others. Whereas for the other person it may not be easy at all and often we forget that. We forget that every person is unique. So it’s very important to validate their feelings – whether those feelings may be – sad, depressed or whatever word they use to describe it, we need to validate it. Very often we invalidate another person’s feelings by saying things such as –
1. “Arey tumhein kya tension hai.”
2. “You have so much money in your account, why are you worried about this?”
3. “You have such a good job, why are you stressed out?”
4. “You have such a great spouse, you have nothing to be sad about.”
5. “You’re doing just fine”
6. “ You just need to think positive.”
“These are positive but unhelpful things to say to someone.” That’s the only parting advice Tanvii leaves us with. To be more aware and considerate of our words when trying to help a person who may be under a lot of mental pressure.
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