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How to Support Others Facing a Tough Time

The impacts of the pandemic and physical distancing are felt across the country and experienced by everyone in a unique way. Many individuals are experiencing increased levels of stress, poor work-life balance, increasing anxiety, worry, and fear about the uncertainty of the future, as well as an increase in depressive symptoms often triggered by a sense of loss. Loss may be felt as the loss of a person you care for, loss of financial stability or opportunity, loss of important celebrations or milestones, loss of purpose or routine, and the overall loss of social connection to others. These experiences can lead to any number of emotions such as anger, frustration, sadness, or a feeling of unfairness as many of the consequences of the pandemic and its restrictions are beyond their control.

Deciding to talk with someone out of concern for their mental health or well-being, especially a co-worker or colleague, may feel daunting. You may wonder what is appropriate to say, whether you will come across as judgmental, you may fear that you will offend them, or worry that you’ve misinterpreted what you are seeing.

The reality is that if someone is struggling with personal distress or mental health concerns, open non-judgmental communication and connection is what they need most. No amount of hiding will help them to feel better or deal with their problems effectively.

Some important things to keep in mind when considering reaching out to support another individual include:

  • Take a moment to assess how you are managing your own life experiences currently. If you are not feeling confident about your ability to maintain calm to assist in a positive way, then you may not be in a good position to help. Take the time to find stability for yourself before offering your assistance to others.

  • Give the individual the opportunity to share their concerns and experiences without passing judgment or making assumptions about them. Everyone deals with situations differently, and what might upset you or cause you hardship, may not bother someone else.

  • It can be helpful to focus on factual changes that you have noticed. These can include changes in appearance and hygiene, changes in their behaviour and performance, or changes in their general attitude or mood. If possible, have concrete examples in mind to avoid the person from feeling targeted or criticized.

  • Share your concern from a genuine place of caring rather than from a place of curiosity or nosiness. This can help to demonstrate your acceptance and appreciation of them as an individual.

  • Be reliable and accountable to the person by not committing to things that are outside your control or your ability to act upon. Overpromising can lead the individual to feel further hopeless or unworthy of help.

  • Respect an individual’s right to privacy and boundaries to avoid offending someone or invading their personal space. Continuing to pry can frustrate someone and discourage them from sharing or reaching out. If someone shares with you, it is important that you are trustworthy in keeping their experience private.

  • Be prepared for a variety of responses including an appreciation for the support as well as anger or defensiveness if they are not in a place to share or hear what you have to say.

  • Do not debate or minimize someone’s feelings, reactions, or experiences by saying things like “you will be fine”, “things will get better”, or “it could be worse”. These statements can increase feelings of blame or guilt or lead the individual to feel that their challenges or reactions are not normal or important.

  • It is not your responsibility to diagnose someone or try to fix their problems. You are offering a helping hand to someone you are concerned about. You are simply trying to state what you are observing and offer support in response.

Getting up the courage to talk to someone about changes you are noticing, or potential mental health concerns, can be challenging and rewarding at the same time. Not only might you help someone to feel better and improve their life, but the act of helping others will often bring about feelings of joy and appreciation in you as well.

Types of Support you can Offer

Not only are there a number of potential reactions that you may encounter when talking with someone about their problems, but it can also often be hard to know exactly how you may be able to help.

As everyone manages stress and copes in different ways, one of the best ways to get started is to ask someone how they would prefer for you to help. This gives the individual the opportunity to tell you what they need, whether hands-on support, a listening ear, or someone to bounce ideas off, rather than assuming which may further discourage the individual from sharing or reaching out.

Here are some common ways to offer support to individuals facing challenging times:

  • Reassure them that their emotions and experiences are normal, so they feel validated and supported, even if they seem unusual or different than how you might feel or respond.

  • Use empathy to understand the other person’s perspective or story. Do not sympathize or assume they experience the situation the same way you do. Listen fully and paraphrase or reflect back their experiences and emotions so they feel understood and cared for.

  • Be careful providing unsolicited advice to individuals, especially with someone who you do not have a close relationship with. They may decide to act upon your recommendation without thinking through the consequences. This could put you in a position to cause further harm to the individual or lead to future conflict.

  • Rather than provide advice, work with the individual to problem solve and come up with potential solutions to their concerns. Help them to weigh the pros and cons of each solution and allow them to decide which one works best. You may even be able to assist them to create a plan with concrete steps to put their decision into motion.

  • Help them to brainstorm some positive coping strategies that they can use by talking to them about what has helped them to cope in the past. These might include cooking or baking, listening to music, singing, or dancing, creating art, doing puzzles, or any number of other activities. Encourage the individual to schedule time for self-care to reduce the likelihood of not following through.

  • Reduce the stigma around accessing help by talking about the importance of addressing, rather than avoiding, their concerns and reassure them that asking for help does not reflect negatively on their character. It demonstrates self-awareness, courage, and the strength to face adversity head-on.

  • Encourage talking to a professional, a crisis service, or contact emergency services if you are concerned about someone’s suicidal or homicidal ideation, especially if they have a plan, a timeline, or the means to act up their intentions. If someone is in immediate danger, you can contact 911 on their behalf.

When to Seek or Encourage Professional Help

Although having an overall sense of personal support and connectedness can improve mental health, coping, and resiliency, sometimes informal social supports are not enough. Although the support we provide often improves someone’s mood and lifts their spirits, this feeling can be short-lived if more serious problems, underlying negative thinking patterns, or problematic behaviours are impacting them. In these instances, the support of and connection to a medical professional or therapist may be needed to address the root cause of their mood, emotions, and experiences.

Here are some symptoms or behaviours to be mindful of that may indicate the need for more professional counselling or support. It is important to recognize that everyone is coming from a different starting point, so the specific symptoms or behaviour changes experienced will be unique to each individual.

  • Ongoing changes in sleep, eating, and exercise patterns

  • Increase in muscle tension, headaches, nausea, and fatigue

  • More frequently feeling sick or unwell, recurring colds, or the onset of other more serious health concerns

  • Withdrawal from social connection, hobbies, and other pleasurable activities that are not directly impacted by the pandemic and physical distancing restrictions

  • Decreased productivity, missing deadlines, making mistakes, and reduced functioning at work, as well as frequently showing up late or missing work altogether

  • Forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, and difficulty making decisions

  • Decrease in self-care, hygiene, and inability to complete chores or everyday tasks

  • Increase in mood swings, negativity, apathy, irritability, and outbursts, especially if they are being recognized by others

  • Increase in anxiety symptoms such as uncontrollable worry or irrational fears

  • Increase in depressive symptoms such as hopelessness, worthlessness, or thoughts to harm oneself or others

  • Irregular use or termination of psychiatric medications without consulting your care team

  • Increase in substance use or other addiction and risky behaviours such as gambling, reckless driving, or other illegal activities

Contact your Employee and Family Assistance Program for Support

If you, or someone you know, are experiencing persistent or worsening mental health or emotional struggles as a result of COVID-19, or for any other reason, reach out to your EFAP program for support. You can call to access support for yourself or to help guide you as you support a colleague or peer. A professional can help you to process emotions, recognize unhelpful thinking or behaviours, and begin the journey toward healing for yourself or for others. We are here to help 24/7 with access to telephonic, online, and video-based supports to assist you.

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