On our podcast ‘Tales That Tethr’, tethr Founder & CEO Matt Zerker interviews entrepreneurs, experts, thought leaders, and regular people about what is means to be a man, the challenges that modern men face, and how to overcome challenges and live life in a more connected and authentic way.
The stigma surrounding mental health issues has long been a barrier to receiving proper care and support. Thankfully, we've seen a shift as people fight to bring mental illness to the forefront of discussions about health. Initiatives like Bell Let's Talk, in Canada, attempt to break down those barriers by normalizing mental health and illness issues, which one in five Canadian's experience every year.
Still, it’s one thing to see those conversations play out in the media. It’s another thing entirely when a friend or family member is struggling. You may know all the facts, you may be a champion of mental health awareness, and still not know what to say when a loved when is suffering. For most people, the issue isn’t whether or not they want to support their friends or family, it’s an issue of not knowing how.
What does peer support look like? What should you say and when? Below, we’ve asked a few experts about the basics.
What is a peer supporter
Last weekend, tethr participated in the Hope Rising E-Summit, where thousands of people across the world got together to talk about suicide prevention. In preparation for our talks, we focused on defining what peer support means to us.
"A peer supporter is anyone who chooses to show up to another person with the intention to hear their story, hold space, and create a relationship of balanced and boundary driven support," says Addison Brasil, tethr's head of impact.
tethr's CEO Matt Zerker adds, "as a peer supporter, you choose when you show up, what your boundaries are, how you are able to support another person, and in what capacity."
It is an intentional approach to offering support that allows the peer supporter and the support-receiver to create a relationship that benefits them both. If you’re new to peer support, start by thinking about the definition of peer support. You’re offering guidance and help as a friend, based on your knowledge and lived experiences.
You don’t have to fix everything
It’s natural to put pressure on yourself. You might worry about offering the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ type of help.
“I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, as support people, to feel like we have to say something in particular, do something in particular, fix something,” says Dr. Kieran Kennedy, a doctor and mental health advocate in Melbourne. “The thing that I hear all the time from people is, ‘I decided not to ask because I wasn’t quite sure what to say,’ or ‘I didn’t know how to fix it,’... your job in this role is to be the friend, the parent, the sibling, the colleague, it’s not to be the therapist, it’s not to be the doctors.”
Don’t expect to solve the entire issue or offer professional-level help. Instead, Dr. Kennedy recommends focusing on the basics, as you would do for a friend with a cold or the flu: encourage them to get enough sleep, make sure they’re getting proper nutrition every day, ask them to go for a walk for some fresh air. “Those very basic, very human things can actually make a significant difference to someone’s mental health outcomes,” he adds. “Just being the friend, being the family member, being the tethr support crew, that is more than enough.”
Dr. Kennedy recommends focusing on the basics, as you would do for a friend with a cold or the flu: encourage them to get enough sleep, make sure they’re getting proper nutrition every day, ask them to go for a walk for some fresh air.
Don’t hesitate to speak up
Dr. Kennedy’s number one rule is to not “shy away from sticking the course, even if someone is accessing professional help or even if you need to remind them that would probably be a good idea at the moment.”
Your role as a supportive friend doesn’t end because they are seeking professional help. As Dr. Kennedy points out, there are far better outcomes in recovery for those who have a strong support system.
It can be difficult to find the right time, especially in the midst of a pandemic, to have a hard conversation with your friend about their struggle. That doesn’t make it less important.
“Don’t put pressure on ourselves that it has to be perfect… that we have to do it in person for it to still be useful,” Dr. Kennedy explains. Instead, he suggests, “biting the bullet and sending the text, or sending the email.” Reaching out in less than ideal circumstances is still far better than not reaching out at all. The important thing is that your friend knows you’re there for them.
When we spoke with Ben Greiner, founder of TalkAboutDepression.org, he echoed the necessity of reaching out. Greiner created TAD after a friend struggled with suicidal depression, leaving Greiner unsure of how to help. “It’s about accepting what they’re saying and bringing it into what you’ve experienced… So really connecting on a different level through that conversation is really important. Your ultimate goal again is to get them to professional help but engaging in that conversation is still happening.”
But what do you actually say when you reach out
“It’s really important to be a listener, but at the same time, using your own experience to help create some sort of empathy within that conversation.”
No matter how many times we’re told it doesn’t have to be perfect, we still can’t help but wonder exactly what to say when you’re concerned about a friend’s mental health. Though Dr. Kennedy was careful to remind us that there isn’t one script, he did have some suggestions.
Particularly right now, when these conversations may have to take place on the phone or over text, he suggests being direct with your concern.
“I think it’s nice to start the conversation from a broad sense, an open-ended question that lets the person start to talk,” Dr. Kennedy suggests something like ‘how are you going at the moment’ but if you don’t have an Australian accent, ‘how are you’ works too. Afterward, you can dive deeper. Some other questions he suggested were: “How are you feeling about the lockdown? How are things with working from home? How is your sleep? Are you feeling safe at the moment?”
Another thing you can focus on is using the word “we” when you’re speaking. This is a technique we’ve heard about before, in our discussion with Dr. John Ogrodniczuk.
“It helps you both feel like, ‘okay, we’re in this together, this is tough for both of us.’” Dr. Kennedy suggests this might be particularly helpful for men, who’ve been taught not to feel comfortable either giving or receiving help. It helps create the sense that it’s okay if you don’t know the exact thing to say or do and you can figure it out together.
Greiner encourages creating a sense of ‘togetherness’ as well. “It’s really important to be a listener, but at the same time, using your own experience to help create some sort of empathy within that conversation.”
The tough questions are the important ones
There can be an added level of pressure if you’re not only concerned for the mental health of your friend but their immediate safety as well. In particular, Dr. Kennedy mentions a myth he’s heard several times: that asking someone about self-harm or suicide may increase the risk of those things happening.
“What we actually know medically is that if you ask that question, you reduce the person’s risk in that instant, significantly so.” He acknowledges the anxiety around having these conversations but encourages us all, regardless of professional training, to listen to our guts. “If you’re feeling in your gut that someone is in a difficult space, that they’re in crisis… never put off asking that question, ‘are you safe?’ or ‘mate, I just have to ask it, have you been thinking about suicide.’”
Asking the question can be the pivot point for a friend or loved one who desperately needs help.
Next steps if a friend is in crisis
If someone is in crisis or their safety is at risk, the next step is always getting professional support.
Dr. Kennedy uses the example of a broken limb: if you ask a friend how they’re doing and they respond that they’ve just fallen, broken an arm, and are bleeding profusely, you wouldn’t pause to wonder if they needed emergency help or if you were the right person to help them get it.
There are different steps you can take depending on where you live, but talkaboutdepression.org provides detailed information about how to start connecting your friend with resources right away.
As for what to say, Dr. Kennedy suggests something simple, “I’m here for you in whatever way I can be, I think we do need to get some professional support here,” to let the person know that you’re there supporting them.
“I’m here for you in whatever way I can be, I think we do need to get some professional support here,”
Greiner echos this, “it’s really important to stay the course with that individual… It’s really important to make sure that you’re communicating, you're checking in… even a simple text, that little message that you send matters. It really connects to people when they know that you care.”
We can connect this back with the initial advice: use “we” phrases and try to focus on the basics. “What can we do in this moment right now, to make you feel a little bit safer,” suggests Dr. Kennedy. Arranging a call, meeting them in person if possible, taking a shower, or putting on some music are all options that might help dial down the intensity of the emotions your friend or loved one is experiencing.
Even if you’re physically separated, Dr. Kennedy suggests trying to be creative about making them feel connected: “Go for a walk, even separately, but both know that we’re walking and we’re texting and talking on the app at the same time.”
“Very, very basic stuff can still be very, very powerful in the moment.”