The deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, both by apparent suicide has the world reeling again. There have been numerous articles in response to this, calling for more mental health support, offering advice on how to reach out to loved ones, and more. One of my first thoughts was of how devastating substance abuse can be. I don’t know directly how much alcohol or drugs factored into the deaths of these two celebrities, but both had struggled with substances throughout their lives and it seems as though it likely influenced these most recent tragedies.
When we experience the death of a celebrity, a work colleague, a friend, or family member, one of the common struggles is wondering what could have been done? What if we’d just reached out more? What if we’d asked them how they were doing more? What if we’d encouraged them to get help more? The reality is that simply checking in on someone, or offering platitudes like, “Make sure you ask for help when you need it,” simply don’t work very often.
One of our staff pointed me to this article in which a group of friends held an intervention of sorts for a friend struggling with grief. What I appreciated about the article, from the perspective of the friend being intervened upon, was the comment that this approach could have easily backfired. This is very much true – it worked in her case, but on a different day, at a different time, or for any other number of reason the approach could have backfired. Still, she was grateful that they had intervened. So, here are some ways I’m going to suggest we can succeed in supporting friends when the stereotypical “reaching out” isn’t working.
Most people struggling with mental health will tell you that it’s incredibly isolating. Isolation intensifies and worsens negative emotions and symptoms of mental health difficulties. It removes motivation, removes hope, and so much more. So, what this means is that when we ask, “Hey, how are you doing today? Have you gone outside for a walk? Is there anything I can do,” we are likely to hear, “I’m fine, it’s ok,” because giving any other answer requires motivation and hope, and effort, just like any other action on their part.
This is where we can show up. We know what our friends, family members, and loved ones need in general because it’s good for anyone: healthy food, going for walks, help with practical things in life. If we ask if we can do something for someone struggling, they’ll likely say no. If we show up and help, however, we are more likely to succeed, and more often than not, they will be grateful that we showed up and helped them.
Know Our People Well
In order to show up and be effective, we need to know what our friends, family members, or loved ones like, need, and long for. This requires us to know them well. It requires intimacy and vulnerability on both our parts, and we need to be working on this when times are good. If we rely on building this when things are bad, it will be incredibly difficult. There’s a tool I use when working with couples in therapy as we focus on building a foundation for their relationship and I think it can be helpful here. The Gottman Institute card decks are designed for couples, but they could easily be used for building interpersonal knowledge and intimacy in any relationship. The Love Maps and Open-Ended Questions card decks are particularly helpful for this – know that the language is geared for couples, but I’d love to see more of us using these in our other relationships. The more we know each other on a deeper level, the more we’ll be prepared to respond when someone is having a difficult time with mental health. We’ll know their wants, needs, desires, hopes, without even having to ask.
Be Willing To Take The Risk
Sometimes what we do as we try to help someone might backfire. If we show up unannounced to take someone for a walk because they can’t get out; if we show up with food and conversation when they can’t bring themselves to cook or to talk to anyone; if we show up and clean their house for them, these all may backfire. We might make them mad, we might embarrass them, we may even get the door slammed in our face.
We also might, just maybe, make the difference needed to help them move the next step forward, and they didn’t have to do it alone.
I often get asked the question, “What if I make things worse?” The reality is, it’s hardly possible to make things worse by showing empathy and love. For the sake of argument, even if we do, what then? Are they more depressed or more anxious? That’s a risk we need to be willing to take, and I can tell you that from my experience, it simply does not happen that way.
Get Help Yourself
Finally, if you try everything, you show up, you do for someone what they can’t do for themselves, and it’s not working, this is where a professional’s help can be a great asset. Trying to care for someone is difficult, especially when we don’t see results. It wears on us, it causes us distress, and we are now at greater risk for mental health difficulties ourselves. Sometimes we also just need an outside perspective from someone with experience with these issues. This is where a Registered Clinical Counsellor can be helpful in supporting you and providing outside insight into how you might help someone. RCC’s can also be helpful in connecting you or the person you’re concerned about with appropriate resources that may be helpful.
Don’t Give Up
Caring for someone who is struggling is hard. Don’t give up on them – try some of the strategies above, get some help for yourself if they won’t let you help them, and in case you missed it the first few times, don’t give up.
Feel free to contact us for help or counselling related matters. Our doors are always open.