Five golden rules to help you start important conversations about mental health when it really matters
When someone is hurting emotionally, the best way to help isn’t always clear. You may feel your instincts are leading you to do the “right” thing, and dread falling short of providing the support they need – or making things worse.
Jack.org, a national charity that supports youth mental health, has two free online resources, Bethere.org and BeThereCertificate.org, that are designed to give everyone the tools they need to level up their mental health support skills at their own pace.
These resources are based on the organization’s “Five “Golden Rules,” a simple and actionable framework to start talking about mental health.
Here’s more about how to put the Golden Rules in to practice, and the impact they can have when you do.
1. Say What You See
In the face of any problem, it’s impossible to move forward if you don’t create space for a productive conversation. If the subject of that conversation is mental health, however, a simple “How are you?” or “What’s wrong?” might not offer enough room for a friend or family member to really open up. The “Say What You See” approach is both an expression of concern and a way to show the person that you’ve noticed how they’re feeling – even if you don’t completely understand it yet. If you notice something is up but you’re not sure what to do, simply say what you see. Stick to the facts, don’t judge and don’t make assumptions.
Questions like, “I’ve missed seeing you in French class the last few days, is everything okay?” or “I haven’t heard you laugh in a while, what’s been going on with you?” demonstrate care and an openness to listen while encouraging a friend who’s struggling to go into more detail about how they’re feeling.
“I didn’t need somebody to tell me it was going to be okay. I didn’t need somebody to offer solutions. I needed the validation of somebody being in that room with me, seeing me not okay. And for that to be okay.”— Neta
2. Show You Care
Telling a friend or loved one that you’re there for them is important. But how do you show them that you really mean it? Bringing them their favourite fancy coffee drink or simply putting your phone on silent so that you are completely present are a few of the many ways to signal that you’re there for them.
Neta once sent a text to her friend Bri: “S.O.S. I’m in an emotional health crisis. I need someone to be here with me.” Bri knew that Neta was struggling with anxiety and depression, but she didn’t know what to do when she arrived at her house. “So, what I settled on was just sitting there,” she says. “I just showed up ready to just be there, really follow Neta’s lead and see how I could support her in the best way possible.”
Bri’s actions showed Neta that she mattered. “I didn’t need somebody to tell me it was going to be okay,” says Neta. “I didn’t need somebody to offer solutions. I needed the validation of somebody being in that room with me, seeing me not okay. And for that to be okay.”
3. Hear Them Out
Someone struggling with their mental health may fear you will ask them questions they can’t answer. Open-ended questions really help minimize that stress. After you ask a question, the next step is to listen. Truly listening isn’t the same as trying to “fix” them or offering solutions to problems. Most of us are uncomfortable sitting with problems. Many of us instinctively launch into trying to solve issues. However, supporting someone’s mental health isn’t that simple.
“When I was in high school, my best friend had a lot of anxiety about getting into university,” says Hannah. “She confided in me about how she was feeling, and I responded by giving her advice: Work on your application, volunteer more, focus even more on academics. I just wanted to help but in fact, I ended up stressing her out even more.”
Hannah’s intention was to fix her friend’s problems, but the fixes she offered weren’t changing how her friend felt. “She was brave enough to open up to me. I acted like a guidance counsellor or a parent might act. But what she really needed was a friend; a listening ear. My job was to hear what she was saying and ask what I could do to help. It’s really easy to feel like you know exactly what someone needs, but you really don’t unless you ask.”
“I was eventually able to connect with a counsellor, and build up a supportive and respectful social circle. I started to understand what self-care looks like. And because of that, I’m now in a much better place.”— Jenny
4. Know Your Role
When it comes to a friend’s mental health issue, your role is the same as it has been all along: being their friend. You’re not a therapist or a doctor. The dos and don’ts of friendship remain the same during this challenging period of friendship: Don’t preach, don’t judge and don’t downplay a friend’s problems.
At the same time, it’s also important to recognize your limitations and set boundaries to keep your own mental wellness protected. Some days it’s okay to feel too tired or too sad to be fully supportive. And it’s okay to not take on the entire task of supporting a friend.
“I had a friend who had been struggling with her mental health for a while. She would open up every now and then, but was very hesitant about really telling me what was going on. Then one day, she told me that she had thoughts of harming herself and that she had a plan in mind. I realized I wasn’t able to help her,” says Iman, who turned to staff members at her college campus for back up.
“At first, my friend’s reaction was very hostile,” she says, but then things got better. “It took some time, but we ended up having a closer relationship, where we’re able to be more open with one another. It was very important for me to realize that, even though the initial response wasn’t positive, it was what I needed to do to be a friend and help get her the help she actually needed.”
5. Connect to Help
In the midst of a mental health crisis, connecting with a professional for help can seem like a huge task, one that is felt even more acutely by people whose family or community have values or beliefs that increase the stigmatization around their experience.
“Growing up, I didn’t know what a supportive relationship looked like because I didn’t have many in my life,” says Jenny. “At school, my classmates mocked my accent and the way I looked. And at home, the message was always that I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t athletic enough, I wasn’t pretty enough, that I lacked talent in all sorts of arbitrary areas.”
For Jenny, it was an observant and caring high school teacher who connected them with a support group. “She ran a group where students could come together to talk about common challenges they were experiencing and share coping strategies. In finding a safe space to focus on myself, I was eventually able to connect with a counsellor, build up a supportive and respectful social circle, and I started to understand what self-care looks like. Because of that, I’m now in a much better place.”
It’s not always easy to know what to do or how to help someone who is dealing with mental health issues, but following these five golden rules will prepare you to be that first point of support.
Helping someone connect with resources designed to improve their wellbeing can be as simple as offering to be the one to call for an appointment, or riding the bus with them to their first visit to a support group. You can’t guarantee they’ll be ready to go but you can help draw the map to get there.
For more information about Jack.org and peer-to-peer mental health education, visit Jack.org. To learn more about the Five Golden Rules and watch videos about how these rules have helped youth experiencing mental health concerns, visit BeThere.org. If you’re interested in the Be There certificate, which consists of six free, self-paced interactive lessons, go to BeThereCertificate.org.
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with jack.org. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.