One of the biggest hurdles people face when they have mental and emotional problems is finding safe people to talk to about it. We aren’t naturally gifted with the ability to communicate productively with those who suffer from mental and emotional disorders. After carefully observing and imitating the counselors I have worked with, I have picked up a few things. I’m not qualified to be a therapist, but I feel pretty confident that I can be a supportive friend.
I joined a Facebook group called “Mental Health Awareness.” It has been a very interesting experience to see people posting and responding to posts. A couple of days ago a girl posted about an abusive marriage. She was just getting to the point where she recognized a problem, but not confident enough in her own perceptions to be sure. She said, “Hey everyone. I’ve had to make a Facebook account to make this post, as I wanted to remain anonymous, as I’m unsure if I’m ‘overreacting’.” After that she described a typical abusive marriage, expressed her feelings of dependence on her narcissistic husband and inability to cope. My gut feeling was to validate her belief that her husband had Narcissistic Personality Disorder and tell her to leave the marriage immediately. Many of the comments said as much.
In mental health, I have learned to be a little more careful in my judgments and my first impressions. Some things that appear to be one thing, can be something else. I prayed to know what I should post. The spirit helped me see things about this person and her situation that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t taken a little while to really see her and what her real needs were. I settled on this:
“Love you girl! Whatever you choose to do, you can always ask for help. You are worth it. No one can diagnose NPD without evaluating the person, but it sounds to me like he may very well have it. He has his own journey to get healthy. You have yours. Focus on you. It sounds like the relationship has really eroded your sense of self and confidence. This moment doesn’t define you. Joining this group is a great first step.”
I chose not to attack her husband. That was because she likely loves him very much. Even a narcissist is a child of God with many good and lovable parts to them. By labeling and judging the husband, you ironically turn the wife against you. She has an instinctual need to defend her husband against the unfair judgment of others who don’t know him. She might feel disloyal for talking about him and her problems. I chose instead to counsel her to focus on herself. That counsel will probably come across as reasonable to her. It won’t put her on the defensive. If she does follow the counsel, it will disrupt the codependent pattern that has developed in the relationship. If the narcissist chooses to change, then the marriage will improve. If he does what narcissists usually do and resists, the situation will get worse. That may seem like a bad thing, but sometimes things have to get worse before the victim of abuse will take the actions necessary to end the abuse by terminating the relationship.
I also praised her willingness to post on the Facebook page. For a victim of abuse, talking about the situation can be very difficult. Victims take great pains to hide the abuse, minimize it, and defend their abusers. The courage it took this woman to post was likely immense. Many of the replies were likely unhelpful because they said, “Leave him!” That is like telling someone who just ran a marathon to go climb a mountain. By telling the victim that I support whatever decision she decides to make is validating her ability to handle the situation, something her abuser has eroded. Then I told her that there is help available to her. Abusers take great pains to make a victim feel there is no help available, so that is key. The goal is to give the marathon runner a pat on the back, a cool drink, and a bench to sit on. You can talk about climbing mountains later.
After thinking on it for a day, I feel good about how I responded to her. I pray for her and then hope for the best. Another woman posted this:
“Losing my mind….
All in a weeks span I lost my place and my job.
I have completely hit rock bottom and am in a rut not just physically but mentally too…
Idk where to start I just want to crawl in a hole and cry and never come out
My depression is super bad right now ugh”
My first reaction was to want to fix it. I imagined how I would feel if I were homeless and jobless. I wanted to give her a place to live and a way to get back on her feet. I wanted to recommend counseling and therapy. As an empathetic person, I have to watch that tendency in myself. I can’t fix this woman’s problems. I don’t even completely understand them let alone know how to solve them. I chose to post this:
“That sounds like a scary and devastating place to be. When I hit rock bottom I found the courage to make changes to my life. I couldn’t have been so bold and taken such risks if I hadn’t gone to that dark place. You won’t feel this way forever. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support like you are with this post. You are not alone! Hugs!”
I tried to empathize with her feelings rather than try to equate my experience with hers. She may have trashed her apartment. She may have mouthed off to her boss. She may have completely caused her own predicament. That doesn’t change the fact that she feels how she feels and that its hard. Rather than try to tell her how things will work out for her, I instead shared my own personal experience. I told her she wouldn’t feel this way forever. When wandering in the dark tunnels of depression, the mind cannot see the end of the suffering. The truth is, it does get easier. Even if the problems don’t go away, the hurt comes and goes. The most important thing is to avoid isolating yourself. That’s why I counselled her not to be afraid to post and reach out for support. I assured her that she is not alone. That is key. In depression, you feel totally alone, like no one understands the pain you are in or cares to.
In reading these posts and thinking about the ways I try to help others, I am coming up with a few principles that might help others who are trying to support people with mental health issues.
1-Seek first to understand. Even if you think you know what this person’s problems are and how to fix them, you don’t. Take the time to really listen to what is being said. A person is an extremely complex being with a unique way of communicating and processing information. Try to get a sense of the unique way that the person in front of you sees the world.
2-Suspend judgment. Let’s say the person you are talking to keeps lying to you. Your first reaction might be to think, “This person is a dirty rotten liar! I’m done talking to them.” If you can, suspend judgment. Yes, this person lies, and that is good to be aware of. That doesn’t mean the person has no value or can’t be helped. Just make sure you don’t place too much weight on what they say or you might not get an accurate view of a situation.
3- Think before you respond. This is really hard for me especially in face to face interactions. My first reaction is usually not the best one. After I take a few moments to consider, I have a better sense of what I want to say and how to say it to get the result I am after. Often people say what makes them feel better. They make rash judgements and recommend drastic action, and then they are resentful when their dubious advice is unheeded. Often these people turn around and blame the victim. “If she just would have left that jerk she wouldn’t be so depressed! I told her! She deserves what happens now.” This can make a victim reluctant to confide in anyone in the future.
4- Be patient. Realize that changes in mental processes and systems take time and tremendous effort. Sometimes it will seem like no progress is being made at all, but never underestimate the power of a seed. Planting a seed can change a life. A changed life can impact generations.
5- Rely on the spirit. God knows what his children need. He wants to use you as an instrument to support them and help them grow and be happy. The spirit can help you discern what a person may not be able to explain, recognize when he or she is minimizing a behavior, or see the abusive patterns of a relationship that may not be evident right away.
I hope we can all become more aware of ways to support those who suffer from unseen wounds. They are worth our best efforts!