Background: The person needing support may be a family member of someone with a mental illness or the person who has a mental illness. Perhaps support is needed for an unusually difficult time or for ongoing concerns. Support is often offered. That is not the problem! More often the problem is a lack of understanding of what characterizes effective support or the offer was of superficial intent, a cliché’ to relieve an awkward social interaction. Sometimes when support is offered, it is a disguise for “I know best…I’ll tell you what to do.” Support offered without meaning and empathy, for whatever reason, can be hurtful, even harmful. Ask yourself Did you reflect back the feelings being expressed by the person in distress? Or, with good intentions but incorrectly, did you attempt to solve problems?
Giving and receiving support: One of the biggest pitfalls in a support situation is that the giver feels expected to solve problems whereas the recipient usually needs empathy, not solutions. Other pitfalls include:
- The giver taking on a therapist’s role, which is not appropriate.
- Flooding the person with thousands of questions or suggestions.
- Giving the person advice or countering with a list of your own problems.
- Telling the person they are strong; they will come through on their own.
Remember, Listen, reflect and try to identify with the other person’s needs. Are you hearing despair, extreme anxiety or panic, deep pain, frustration or fear? Loneliness or chaos? Try to be like an airplane: Start at the recipient’s emotional runway and fly off together! (Thank you, Joyce Burland.)
Considerations: I’ll describe the type of support I find helpful and liberating. First of all, the person who offers support is willing to be actively thoughtful. He or she makes a point to learn about the brain disorder (mental illness) involved rather than relying on second hand information!! Second, mutual respect is essential: courteous, patient behavior which acknowledges the hard work of both individuals. The giver leaves behind preconceptions. He is open to evaluating each situation on its own merits. In addition, she contributes without expecting gratitude and has the ability to separate the person’s humanity from symptoms of the illness. For me, the bottom line is that all interactions must promote dignity and self-respect.
Before offering ongoing support, please be fair to yourself and the potential recipient. Assess your reserve honestly and convey your response kindly. If you can offer true support, self-care is a priority. Consider supportive counseling for yourself.
Please read on to Providing True Support (Part Two).