Dealing with Someone with Mental Health Challenges

As South Africa is slowly returning to a more normal way of living and doing things, it is a sad realisation that a lot of people do not know what the new normal will look like for them.  People are losing their jobs; companies are closing their doors and salaries are being cut in half.  On top of all that, hearing or witnessing lives being lost around us, the fear of the pandemic, and our own vulnerability loom over our heads like a dark cloud.  It can be seriously debilitating and demoralising when we feel out of our depths.

I have written blogs to help people from diverse backgrounds and different stages in life to boost their own mental health, strength, and knowledge.  The challenge now becomes the vulnerable people around you, those friends, family members or colleagues who are suffering from mental health challenges.  What if you realise that somebody that you know or who you are close to are continuously anxious, or depressed?  You are witnessing more sadness, somebody is becoming more distant, another person might be asking for more reassurances or appear more exhausted than normal while others appear to display more resentment and anger towards others.  What can you do to help them alleviate the burden that they are carrying?

Please realise that I am not asking you to “fix” anybody.  I am not asking you to take the burdens from them and make it your own.  I am asking you to be “that somebody” who can make a positive impact on the life of somebody who really needs it.

Some of you might feel uncomfortable in helping a colleague or friend in need.  You might feel like you are overstepping boundaries and inserting yourself into situations where you are not welcome.  Your involvement might be welcomed or resented, depending on your sense of empathy and your relationship.  It could even happen that you are scared that you might say the wrong thing and cause the situation to worsen.  Let me see if I can help you, help somebody else in the right way.

  • The first step would be to prepare yourself emotionally. Are you in the right frame of mind and emotionally healthy enough to listen and empathise?  Calm your mind and focus on the person who you want to comfort.  Think on what you want to say.  By calming yourself, you will be able to demonstrate honest empathy through understanding their perspective of the circumstances that they find themselves in.  Find the calmness in yourself to be able to speak in a clear and calm manner.
  • Decide when to talk to the person you are concerned about. Are you going to react immediately or are you going to allow this person time to calm and compose themselves?  Will the time be convenient and appropriate for both of you?  Should you see that other people are already consoling the person, you might want to stand back and choose a more private time to talk to find out if there is anything that you can do.  Please also give attention to the environment that you choose for the conversation.  It might be more appropriate to ask the person to accompany you to a more private area (committee room, office or a quiet place in the garden), or it may be that both of you might feel more safe in a public area, like a restaurant or a bench in a park.
  • A bit of humour can go a long way. Humour can alleviate moods quickly.  Even if you must make a joke about how silly and unsure you felt and had a whole ridiculous conversation in your head before finally taking the leap to talk to the person in distress.  It is okay to be a bit silly and humble at times.  Remember, the focus is not on you, it is on the other person and all you are trying to do is allow them the opportunity to focus on your silliness and not their problems.  Who knows, you might be fortunate enough to see a slight smile between the tears and fears.
  • Ask open questions that encourage detailed responses. Explore the underlying cause of the distress that this person is experiencing but be tactful.  If the person feels uncomfortable, do not push the issue.  The person will share when he/she is ready.  It takes a lot of trust to open up to somebody.  When you are actively listening, in a non-judgemental manner, the trust will start to build purely on the basis that you are displaying respect to the feelings of this person.  Remember not to interrupt.  Give the person enough freedom to express what they are feeling and experiencing.
  • Be genuine and compassionate when dealing with somebody in distress. Treat them with respect and dignity.  Be clear, open, and honest.  It will not serve the person any good if you try to sugar-coat the situation, it can cause the distressed person to feel belittled.  Keep a check on your attitude and make sure that the message that you want to convey is clear and concise.  Another thing that we need to remember is that not everybody likes hugging and personal contact, it might cause further distress.  Ask permission before you hug and respect the personal space of the distressed person.  Please note that hugging is strongly discouraged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • People are often to proud or scared to ask for help. If you know what the underlying cause is, then you can suggest avenues of support, whether it is counselling from a manager, a minister, an employee assistance programme, or a therapist.
  • If possible, meet an immediate need of the person to alleviate distress. Supply a blanket, appropriate/safe medication, a cup of tea or ask them to do a deep breathing exercise with you.  Make sure that the person is safe and offer support as needed.
  • Together you can even work towards finding solutions. The goal is not to fix the problems for the other person, but to suggest avenues on how he/she can manage emotions in a healthy manner.  Suggest practical ways to move forward.  Look at similar tasks or events that the person overcame or completed in the past.  The skills that were successfully used in the past could be used in these new events to help solve or alleviate the problem.
  • Try not to get too involved. I must reiterate that your goal is not to fix the problems of the other person.  Do not sacrifice yourself if your own time, capacity, capability, or patience are limited – know your limits.  You can only listen, give advice, and think about the situation so much.  It can happen that you feel dragged down and overloaded and if you are not careful, it can drive a wedge between you and the person that you are trying to help.
  • When appropriate, focus on the positive. Help the person to find positives in the situation, but please be sensitive when applying this technique.  If the situation is truly bad, it can be counterproductive to point out the positives.
  • Lastly, set boundaries. Let the person know what you can and cannot do.  If you feel that the person is in danger to themselves or to others, you have the responsibility to report it to the necessary authorities or institutions.  When the person verbally attacks you, you will not be able to help the way that you really want to.  Try to say something like “Can you please try to lower your voice?” or “I am unable to continue to listen to you because you are swearing and shouting at me.  Feel free to come and talk to me again in a calm manner, without swearing and I will be happy to listen and help then.”.  Remember, you are not responsible for the situation or for saving somebody, all you can do is try as much as you can and be there for somebody in need.

It is important for all of us to have support systems in our lives.  These people support, build, and motivates us to live better lives.  It is good to give back and be part of a support system for others.  Some situations you might know how to handle, but others not and that is where your own limits set the pace.  Examine your own emotional health, your own capabilities, time and patience to make sure that you do not forego your own wellbeing.

As always, I like to end my blog with a quote or two and the following really enforces what I am trying to say in this blog.  The first one if from Ronald Reagan who said, ‘Let us ask ourselves, “What kind of people do we think we are?’  And let us answer, ‘Free people, worthy of freedom and determined not only to remain so but to help others gain their freedom as well’.” and this one from Saint Augustine who said, “What does love look like?  It has the hands to help others.  It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy.  It has eyes to see misery and want.  It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men.  That is what love looks like.”.  As a little bonus, here is an extra quote from Simon Sinek who said, “A leader’s job is not to do the work of others, it’s to help others figure out how to do it themselves, to get things done, and to succeed beyond what they thought possible.”.

As a reminder, GEM Mental Health Therapy and Coaching has decided to offer Skype Video Calls, Zoom Meetings, WhatsApp Calls and WhatsApp Video Chats in order to reach as many people as possible.  I have also decided to incorporate Counselling via Email, which seems a bit unorthodox, but some clients do not have the freedom and privacy to discuss heart matters in the enclosed environment that they find themselves in at this time.  Please do not hesitate to reach out so that we can work together on your mental health as we face these challenging times.

Thank you very much for reading my blog.  I truly hope that it helped somebody, somewhere.  Please send any feedback or comments to and remember to have a look out for a new blog every week.

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