The topic for this blog came to me this afternoon after speaking to a friend I had known for years. We were actually talking about something highly amusing rather than crisis ridden. After I’d finished the call, I started to reflect on the tremendous value of good friends in our lives. We all have times when we are struggling with something and want to reach out to others. There are also times when people will want to reach out to us with something that is bothering them. How do we help people without disempowering them? That is the subject of this blog. Note I’ve used the word “crisis”. This is a pretty general word. It might relate to a “mental health problem” – a medical problem or simply a difficult life event that our friend is experiencing. The advice is the same.

Listen This is key and something that is difficult to do well. I think it is actually becoming more difficult as the pace of society becomes faster and faster. We are not used to listening to someone for a sustained period. To listen well, we need to create time. Put the phone away, make eye contact and be present with the person and invite them to share what is bothering them. I think many people get stressed when listening to someone in difficulty because they feel obliged to offer some sort of advice or solution. Not so. Often the person wants to vent and once the stress of the solution is released they will find their own solutions. This is how we empower people as well.

Offer advice if it is asked for I think it is really easy to jump in and offer advice. I’ve done it myself (a lot!). Doctors are really good at this and its kind of how we are trained. “Oh I know exactly how you feel, so and so had that problem and this was how they solved it etc etc.” This can help if it is asked for. The reality is that we don’t fully know what the other person is experiencing because we are not them. If the person wants advice then we can give it and it is often helpful. If we are not sure, then ask.

Unhappiness does not always equal “mental health problem” This is very easy to say I know for me because part of my job involves sorting out who has a mental health problem and who is simply having a hard time (I know there is nothing simple about it). One thing that has struck me through counselling hundreds of young people and students is how lonely they are at times. We seem to be losing the basic ability to listen and look out for our friends and nurture human contact.

I’ve spoken to many students who have been going through a crisis and have reached out to friends (and family sometimes) and have simply been told to “get professional advice”, go and see their doctor or get some “therapy”. Folks we don’t all need “therapy”. We are human beings and designed to interact, nurture and help each other. Sure if someone is extremely distressed, comtemplating suicide, self harming or does not seem to be responding to a gentle chat and listening ear, then perhaps we do need to seek professional advice. I would always encourage people to do this for safety. We do need to listen to people first though to ascertain this. Feeling distressed is unpleasant enough and we can feel even more alienated if we are signposted to a “professional” when all we really needed was a cup of tea and a chat.

Encourage them to take care of themselves. This may include taking time to relax, do things they enjoy, and making sure they eat and sleep properly. Spending time with animals or in nature can be very helpful.

Stay with them Its quite common for people who are feeling distressed to dislike being alone. This is a natural human instinct as we are social creatures. Once the distress passes, people usually become more comfortable with their own company. It may be impractical to stay with someone for long periods of time and paradoxically unhelpful as too much nurturance removes the challenge that people need to cope. Trust your gut on this and checking in with your friend on social media can let them know that you are thinking of them if you are unable to be physically with them.

Cut them some slack People who are struggling can often behave irrationally. They may be irritable or angry. They may find it difficult to be around other people or feel uncomfortable in crowds or loud environments. When we are stressed, our “flight and flight” response kicks in. You can Google this but it is essentially the arousal of our system to prepare us to flight or flee

Many of the behaviours and feelings that stressed people experience can be traced back to the activation of the fight or flight response. You can ask your friend what it is they need to help them feel more comfortable

Look after yourself Helping others is tiring. Make sure that you get plenty of sleep and rest. Try not to be the sole carer for someone if it is particularly draining. Encourage your friend to reach out to other friends and this will help her/him feel better quicker as well.

This blog is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace professional, personalised advice from your doctor. Please, if you feel ill and are unsure or concerned, seek advice from a qualified health professional which could be your GP or Accident or Emergency if you have a life threatening medical problem. If you unsure, NHS 111 – can help you to decide.