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Do’s And Don’ts For Supporting A Colleague With a Mental Health Concern

There are many ways to help someone going through a tough time, just make sure you do it properly

What should you do if you think that a team meamber is exhibiting signs of a mental health concern? What if you want to help but can’t find the right words to say? How can we be more present to those in need?

 The good news is more often than not, you don’t even need to say anything. “What’s more important is you respond sensitively to their needs and show that you care,” says Riyan Portuguez,  RPsy RPm (also known as Your Millennial Psychologist). “Your mere presence already has a powerful effect,” she assures.

Below are some ways:

Do:

  1. Dedicate enough time. If you want to get to the bottom of their issues, staying behind for an extra 30-minutes after an online meeting will not cut it. “An honest-to-goodness conversation will take hours, so be sure you won’t be distracted by other matters,” points out Riyan. 
  1. Let them lead the discussion. Allow them to share as much or as little as they want to. Don’t pressure them to tell you anything that they are not ready to talk about. Talking takes a lot of trust and courage; you might even be the first person they have been able to talk to about this issue. 
  1. Validate their feelings. “Listen actively and empathize as much as you can,” advises Riyan. Remember, you don’t have to agree with someone’s feelings or choices to acknowledge that their emotions are valid.
  1. Offer to accompany them to a mental health professional to prevent further harm. They may be hesitant to take this next step because of the stigma associated with seeking professional treatment for mental health concerns, but assure them that it is a good way for them to receive proper care. Another option you can suggest is MindNation’s 24/7 chat helpline on FB Messenger. Assure your friend that the service is free, completely confidential, and that the staff are trained to ease their anxieties. 
  1. Know your limitations. “Make sure YOU are mentally and emotionally prepared to offer help,” Riyan reminds. Self-care is critical when you are supporting someone who is in crisis. When someone unburdens themselves to you, you might end up absorbing all the strong emotions, so make sure you set boundaries and take steps to protect yourself by doing activities before and after the conversation that leave you feeling rested, relaxed, and recharged. And if you feel you have reached your limit, don’t feel bad about stepping back, but do it properly.

Don’t

  1. Diagnose. Do not make assumptions about what is wrong with the person. “When you initiate the conversation, avoid blurting inappropriate things like ‘I notice that you seem down lately, are you depressed?’” Riyan instructs. “A better way to phrase it would be ‘You seem down lately, are you okay?’ or ‘Is there anything I can do?’” 
  1. Start with “How are you?” Riyan says this is because it would be easy for the person to just say “I’m fine” even though he or she is really not. She suggests that if you want the other person to open up, a better way would be to phrase the question in such a way that it compels the responder to do an action, such as “Hey, are you free later? Let’s talk.” 
  1. Break their trust. Do not gossip about your friend’s problems to other people; neither should you report his or her mental health concerns to their boss even if your intentions are good (i.e. you want to alert them that their team member has mental health struggles). “This will cause your friend to resent you, when what you want is to maintain his or her trust in you,” Riyan points out. If you really feel that you need to get others involved, ask for permission first, i.e. “Is it okay to open this up to your team leader?” Then follow up with “I think it would be nice to mention what you told me to them, so that they can also help you.” Lastly, offer to accompany the person when he or she has that conversation as a form of moral support. 
  1. Invalidate their feelings. According to Riyan some of the things you should not say to someone struggling with a mental health concern include: 
  • “It’s all in your head” 
  • “Things could get worse” 
  • “Have you tried chamomile tea/lavender lotion/praying/going out more/etc” 
  • “Shake it off.” 
  1. Ghost, ignore, or avoid them. If you become too overwhelmed to engage with them, don’t just disappear without a world. Step back, but do so respectfully and thoughtfully. Be honest about your reasons for stepping back, and do not blame the person (in the same way that you would not blame a cancer patient for the stress that results from their struggles). Set a date on when you will next touch base with him or her so that they feel assured that you still care for them and that the timeout is only temporary. Lastly, reach out to other members of your friend’s support network and make sure they can commit to helping out if there is an emergency. 

The best thing you can do for someone struggling with a mental health concern is to instill hope. “Saying ‘We will get through this together’ assures the person that he or she is not alone,” says Riyan.

— Written by Jaclyn Lutanco-Chua of MindNation

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Featured Self Help

Note To Self: Practicing Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is often interchanged with self-care, but while the two are related there is a distinct difference. The former is regarding yourself compassionately, while the latter is treating yourself compassionately; one is a thought, the other is an action.

Kristin Neff, Ph.D, widely recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion, defined it as “being understanding towards one’s self during times that we experience perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering.” She adds that it is composed of three main components:

1. Self-kindness

This entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or beating ourselves up with self-criticism. Dr. Neff says that self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing difficulties are inevitable aspects of life, so they treat themselves gently when confronted with painful experiences, rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.

2. Common humanity.

Dr. Neff explains that when something bad happens to us, we tend to feel frustrated and even isolated, i.e. “I’m the stupidest person in the world for doing this,” “Why is this happening to me?” or even “No one else understands what I am going through.” But in reality, all humans suffer and make mistakes, so self-compassion means recognizing that problems and trials are things that everyone in the world goes through and not just “me” alone.

3. Mindfulness

This is a non-judgmental, receptive state of mind in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. If we take a balanced approach or our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed or exaggerated, then we are practicing self-compassion.

Self-compassion and mental health

If you practice self-compassion you will tend to have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Self-compassionate people recognize when they are suffering and are kind to themselves at these times, which reduces their stress. Luckily, self-compassion is a learnable skill.

Here are some ways:

1. Comfort your body.

Anything you can do to improve how you feel physically is already self-compassion. Eat something healthy. Lie down and rest when you feel tired instead of pushing on. Get a massage or massage different body parts on your own. Take a walk.

2. Write a letter to yourself

In the letter, describe a situation that caused you to feel bad (a breakup with a partner, losing your job, receiving negative feedback). Write how the events occurred in a factual manner, without blaming anyone. This is a good way to help you unburden and acknowledge your feelings.

3. Give yourself encouragement.

If something bad happens to you, think of what you would say to a good friend if the same thing happened to him or her. Then direct these compassionate responses toward yourself.

4. Practice mindfulness.

Observe the direction of your thoughts, feelings, and actions after a particularly stressful event, without trying to suppress or deny them. Instead, accept the bad events in your life (as well as the good ones) with a compassionate attitude.

5. Practice self-forgiveness

Stop beating yourself up for your mistakes. Accept that you are not perfect, and be kind to yourself when you are confronted with your shortcomings.

6. Employ a Growth (vs. Fixed) Mindset.

This means viewing and embracing challenges as opportunities to grow rather than as impossible obstacles (fixed) that should be avoided.

7. Express gratitude.

Instead of constantly wishing for what you do not have, find strength in appreciating what you do have at the moment. By focusing on your blessings, you move the focus away from your shortcomings and to all that is good in your life.

The next time you do not meet the expectations you have for yourself, resist the urge to feel sad, angry, or inadequate. Instead, take a moment to pause and reassess, then forgive yourself and recognize that you are only human.

Written by Jacq of Mindnation