Award-winning mental health blogger Charlotte Walker teams up with James Gates to present a guide for helping people in a crisis when they are struck down by depression, anxiety or more serious problems like bipolar or psychosis.
Mental distress can be an incredibly arduous ordeal, not just for the sufferers but for the people close to them. Even the most well-intentioned and loving individuals, when in the grip of an especially bad episode, can say and do things that could frighten loved ones and leave them fearing for the safety of the person experiencing the crisis.
But things needn’t be hopeless. Mental health issues are a medical condition, and like any medical condition they can in some cases be managed and even alleviated through dedicated treatment. But what do you do when you find yourself confronted by someone experiencing a crisis episode? This feature has been written by mental health service users so here are some basic do and don’ts.
1) One of the most important things to bear in mind is that people with mental health issues can be deeply distressed and will often say and do things, however startling, that they may not necessarily act on. Don’t act horrified if somebody talks about suicide or self-harm – even if you are! People who are very low are in a highly sensitive state and are putting a lot of trust in you by opening up. They may withdraw again if they sense that you are shocked.
2) Never try to pull somebody out of their depression by getting them to count their blessings. Gnawing guilt is a classic feature of depression and anxiety so comments like: “But think about your children!” or “You’ve got so much to live for!” may only leave the person feeling worse.
3) Don’t diminish the severity of people’s feelings by saying things like: “Oh, you’ll snap out of it” or “You’re just feeling sorry for yourself.” Depressed people tend to feel very alone and isolated and this can be made worse if they feel like what they’re experiencing is being dismissed.
4) Tender loving care is vital, but don’t try to force somebody to talk if they really don’t want to. You may feel frustrated by their silence but they may not be able to find the words to express what they are going through. Be patient. The fact that you’re with them at all is a huge help and while you’re there, you can keep them out of harm’s way.
5) Stay with a person if they are in distress – until they are feeling better or professional help arrives – for as long as you can. It’s also important for you to look after your own mental well-being and know when you need to take a break. If you’re exhausted or feeling emotional yourself, that will make it harder for you to look after someone during a crisis period.
6) If someone opens up to you, really listen to what they are saying and encourage them to talk more. You don’t need to pretend to be an expert in mental health matters, and simply giving them someone to talk to is a huge kindness that could make all the difference during a dark moment.
7) Reassurance is vital. If the person is comfortable with physical contact then offer plenty of hugs and let them know that no bad thing lasts forever and you believe they can get through this crisis period. You can also drop them a text message or email during the day so they know you are thinking of them. Being consistent with your messaging will be a big source of reassurement for someone and give them knowledge that they have someone they can turn to in a crisis.
8) If they haven’t done so already, encourage them to contact a professional for support and advice. There are more options than just a GP. For those using specialist mental health services it may be a Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN), psychiatrist or care co-ordinator. However, if you believe that somebody is in imminent danger you should call an ambulance or take the person to A&E. There is also the non-emergency number 111.
9) If the person is prescribed medication for their mental health issues, keep a gentle eye on them and encourage them to continue to take their medicine as directed and make sure that they won’t run out during this difficult period.
10) Encourage the person to think about self-help. Are there things they’ve tried in the past that might help again? It might be useful to sit down and make a list together so the person you’re supporting feels that they have options.
Bear in mind that even once a course of treatment has begun, be it medication, talking therapy or both, the recovery process can often take a while and again, patience is vital during this period so you may need to refer to the points above more than once. Mental health is still an inexact science but people can and do make a good recovery. One of the things they need most is the support of those around them, and that includes you.
Charlotte Walker is a qualified Mental Health First Aid Trainer. She won a Mind Digital Media Award 2013 for writing regularly about mental health issues over at her blog at www.purplepersuasion.wordpress.com. She is also on Twitter @BipolarBlogger
James Gates can be found on Twitter @jamespetergates
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