Okay this week I’m going to go over some strategies on how to support someone with a mood disorder. This is one perspective and different people with different disorders require different things. So please imagine yourself using this to support someone and if it feels like it won’t work, trust your instinct, or explore it when that person is in a positive space (e.g.: asking the person “When you’re in a tough space, how would you feel if I did…”). This is really just a part 1, if there are questions you have that I don’t answer, post them or email me at email@example.com.
Basically, your goal is to let the person know that you care, without tripping potential landmines that will cause further upset or unproductive communication. The best thing you can do for yourself coming in is to let go of your expectations. You can’t solve it, you can’t fix it and it will happen again. You can help find a solution, you can help make the time between episodes longer and you can help an episode not last as long. Letting the person know that you’re out of your element is a good way to be proactive about outbursts because it tells the person that you’re genuine and that you acknowledge your limits in your ability to help.
“I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now.”
Once you’re in with a person as a supporter, you want to ask questions that do not assume things and do not guide a conversation to what you think the problem may be. This is important because if a person feels like they’re being patronized or assessed, they’ll shut down in a hurry. Again, look at your preconceived notions here, a person with a mood disorder has an experience that is not less than and it’s not wrong. It can be irrational, inefficient, or even annoying, but these things are not wrong, they are different.
Examples of unhelpful questions:
“Are you sure it’s not about your job? That you didn’t get that promotion?” (while this would likely be part of the problem, you may be simplifying things and you’re assuming things. Asking this also communicates that you have made up your mind and have judged the situation already.)
“You’re feeling really upset, how can I help?” (assumes how they’re feeling and asks a question that when a person is in a bad space, is impossible to answer.)
Examples of helpful questions:
“What’s going on?” or “What’s up?” (good starts, gives all the power to the person)
“Why do you think that?” (open ended, invites them to explore it without any input from you, watch your tone here, you’re going for positive curiosity.)
“What are you feeling right now?” (validates their feelings and again invites them to explore it and start making sense of it. Don’t fix it! Just give a space whereby they can put their feelings out there.)
You’re trying to help them categorize it for themselves, so you’re giving shape to the problem that they can then start to solve. If you think you have something to say that really can help, ask permission first, this will help prevent defensiveness.
“Do you want to hear what I think?” (asks permission to give your input, if they don’t like your answer, let it drop and move on. Don’t argue about why your input is true or real, just let it go and continue to help define things by asking helpful questions.)
If they say “no”, respect that and do not take it personally. In general, you need to let go of personally wanting/needing to understand why someone feels a certain way (usually this comes from wanting to fix the problem as soon as possible so things can return to normal, or be positive/productive again). If you don’t have a mood disorder, generally, you can pin-point what is causing you to be in a particular mood at any given time and while this is still true for someone with a mood disorder, it’s very different and more complicated. Be mindful of your need to know when asking why a person with a mood disorder feels a certain way, and ensure that your questions are about helping the person find those reasons (and not your imagined or assumed reasons). Some paper and pen can go a long way in this process; I’ll shoot a video for how I do it so you can check it out.
Remember that being there isn’t just about the problem solving or the reactionary help, it’s also about being a friend or family member whose experiences normalize things for a person. Some people in my life who are close to me almost never talk about depression and that’s exactly the way I want it. I want a break from mental health fairly frequently and that type of support can be just as important for long term stability as those that know my behaviours intimately.
Good luck and feel free to post questions, feedback or circumstances you’re struggling with in the box below! Part 2 will be driven by your questions!