When I hit rock-bottom in my drug addiction and mental health, I spent a whole year and a half recovering. Six months of that time, I slept almost every day until two or three in the afternoon. I would not say that I had nothing to live for, but I felt there was nothing in my immediate future to work towards. I did not even see it as time to “work on myself” because I was still emotionally surviving trying not to drink or use. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings kept me grounded by listening to the stories I heard from other people about hitting their own rock-bottom. I did not have any friends at that time, as I was in the process of transitioning out of my circle of friends. I mostly kept to myself. After a year and a half of recovering, I was fortunate enough to get back into my career in mental health as a social worker.
As a therapist, I emotionally support people going through many different situations. Some of the things I ask folks dealing with depression and other types of suffering vary depending on what we are talking about in a given moment or our emotional interaction. Being on both sides of the fence in regards to being a mental health patient-professional has afforded me the opportunity to both seek/ask for and provide emotional support. Seven questions I have found helpful when supporting someone who is dealing with depression or who is struggling are the following:
1)“What is your story or situation?”
Asking someone to tell their story varies from person-to-person and situation-to-situation. Their story may involve conflict or tensions with a romantic partner or community member. Or, it may involve a medical issue. Asking someone to tell their story often prompts a person to disclose a particular situation they are dealing with or a more larger context with which they have been enduring for a while. If I have known someone on a personal basis for a significant period of time, I more or less know the various contexts and spaces they bring with them. Our relationship is already based in trust which affords me the opportunity to be more direct and honest. If I am still getting to know someone for the first time, which mostly occurs for me as a mental health professional, then I am more inclined to simply listen and validate their feelings.
2) “Just listen and validate one’s feelings.”
As a therapist I am trained to “apply clinical interventions” when talking with people. However, I am reminded again and again in professional and personal settings to never underestimate the power of listening and validating someone else’s feelings. And, most of the time, that is what people want: someone to listen to their story. By validating someone’s feeling it means saying things like: “That sounds rough” or “I can’t imagine what that feels like.” Listening goes a long way. When someone is deep into suffering they are usually not in the stage of problem solving their situation. They need to feel their feelings. All I can do is be present with them and bear witness to them naming their feelings.
3) “How can I best support you?”
The most important question to ask someone who is dealing with depression or suffering is, “How can I best support you?” Emotionally supporting someone consists of different aspects: listening, coaching, encouraging, reflecting, problem solving, or physical assistance or accompaniment to name a few. Asking what type of support one needs gives the other person the opportunity to think about what they need most in a given moment in time.
4) “Can I support you to complete some tasks? Buy groceries, clean your house, accompany you somewhere?”
Folks dealing with depression or deep suffering are too busy, legitimately so, emotionally surviving on a daily basis from trauma and trauma triggers. Sometimes what people need is someone to help them complete daily tasks, such as buying groceries, wash the dishes, take out the trash, and other tasks which may seem mundane. I have assisted people in my community with some of these tasks.
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5) “Who or what is hurting you?”: Becoming an Ally
What I find in my professional capacity and as a person in my community is that people are hurting. More often than not people know exactly who or what is hurting them. What they need is someone to ally with them in identifying who or what is doing the hurting and for someone to believe that they are hurting. They also need someone to bear witness to their naming of the harm they are experiencing.
6) Is there anybody you know in a similar situation who you can talk to?
Activists and therapists understand the power of a person connecting with folks from similar circumstances to be a means of support. Directing someone to connect with other folks who share similarities in terms of background is beneficial in-of-itself. However, a secondary benefit to asking someone this is that it prompts them to generalize their problems to a whole community. This then inclines them to think of their problem as a structural issue affecting a larger community of which they are apart. When I am asking someone, “Is there anybody you know in a similar situation who you can talk to?”, a deeper level of that question is, “How is your suffering connected to structural forces of your marginalization?” Getting from the first question to the other involves asking further questions in the conversation like, “How is this person’s story similar to yours?”, “How have they gone through similar things such as you?”, or “How does what you share in common make you both vulnerable to feeling hurt or wounded?”
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7) What are some things I can do to follow-up with you?
A final question I ask someone who is suffering is what can I do for them in the future. Does this mean calling them in a couple of days? Does this means helping them find professional support for them, such as a therapist or community healer? Does this mean scheduling a fun night of dinner or recreational activity. It does not matter so much as to what type of follow-up one needs as much as simply asking them. This explicitly communicates to the other person that I am intent on keeping them in my regard.
When someone is deep into suffering they are usually not in the stage of problem solving their situation. They need to feel their feelings. All I can do is be present with them and bear witness to them naming their feelings. This requires, above all things, patience. I cannot control some one’s else healing process.
All I can do is bear witness to their journey of recovery. I hope what I have suggested here resonates with some of you and provides a framework through which to support those around you.
[Featured Image: Two individuals sit outdoors on stairs. One person sits on the top stair wearing a baseball cap, long sleeve shirt and shorts with gym shoes as their arm rests on the person sitting below them as they look at one another. Pexels.com]