Have you ever wanted to support someone in your life, but you didn’t know what to do? You wouldn’t be the only one. Many people struggle with these situations.
I want to help, but I don’t know what to say… I’m scared I will make it worse… it’s not my place… I don’t do well with these conversations…
There are a few common reason people don’t start these conversations, and a million reasons why you should!
Where we began
In February of 2021, amid the ever-increasing environment of fear and isolation, some humble champions at the Social Impact Lab decided to look into what it would take to harness the relationships that exist between coworkers toward helping them help each other to deal with mental health struggles. The idea came on the tail of the Social Impact Lab’s development of the Natural Supports Simulation, a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ online experience designed to help adults be better supports to youths in their lives.
Coworkers in traditional employment positions generally spend large amounts of time together, and in a lot of cases, are a large social outlet. What we found when we started poking around the workplace is that while people want to support each other, vulnerability, the cornerstone of empathy and support, comes with a real risk to your job if the workplace doesn’t have a strong culture around mental health (which few do).
While not what we were hoping to find, what we heard over and over again from the people was – ‘I see when people are struggling. I want to help, but I don’t know how.’
What is a Natural Support?
The term ‘Natural Support’ isn’t yet as recognizable as it will be. And while not a new concept, the mental health space is leaning into this model of person-to-person support.
Natural supports are supportive connections between people ranging from close relationships, like friends and family, to more distant relationships, like neighbours and teachers. These relationships are developed organically through the course of daily living with people in our social network. Natural supports help others through challenging times, encourage learning, and lend advice when appropriate. You’ve likely been a natural support many times in your life without realizing it. When you help someone through a hard time, you are being a natural support. And as more people openly talk about mental health challenges, the higher the likelihood you’ll find yourself in a situation where you can be a natural support.
If you contrast the structure of how we currently live and interact with one another in Western culture with that of other cultures, and in fact, how we existed for most of human history, you will see a quick migration from living communally to living in isolation. We’re not talking pandemic here!
Communal living lends itself to the human practices that maintain positive mental health - social connection, communication, working together, moving together…
With this historically recent move to autonomy and independence, people have gone from a communal style of living to living in isolation from the people around them, reaching out to selectively choose those they let in. It used to be that you would ‘belong to a community.’ In the absence of this more human style of living, the narrative has changed to ‘building community around you.’ Something that hadn’t previously been necessary.
On a mission to give you the tool to support people in your life
With this gap identified and eager minds and talented designers at our fingertips, we began the mission to find the right information that would help those who want to help each other, by building an accessible tool that anyone can learn these skills from. Our goals:
Understanding your role
It’s important to understand that, unless you are actually a mental health professional, you are not a mental health professional. You don’t need to have all the answers to support someone in your life. As it turns out, the best things to do are also the simplest and require no specialized knowledge.
When someone you know is going through a struggle, the best thing you can do for them is show you genuinely care. Some of the best ways to show you care are by checking in with them, listening to what they are going through, and helping them find support and resources.
People don’t always need or want advice – they may just need someone to hear what they are feeling.
Why isn’t this easier to do?
The fear and doubt around starting a conversation is the main barrier we have to accessing this person-to-person support. There are many reasons your first instinct may not be to check in with someone and ask if they’re doing alright:
Stigma – Unfortunately, mental health is very stigmatized. Because of this, people may feel like they may offend by inquiring about someone else’s mental health or feel awkward bringing up a subject that may seem taboo or ‘not normal’ to talk about.
It’s none of my business – The old school mentality of ‘you do you, and I’ll do me’ is not just unhelpful, but also not old school. Open conversation is as old as language and a very human part of being human. We’re in this together… always have been.
I might make it worse – The fear of making things worse is not uncommon. Understanding that your role to support and listen takes the edge off. You’re not trying to fix their problem. You are not expected to be an expert. You are a set of ears to help them verbally process what they are going through.
I don’t know what to say – You don’t have to. Being there and genuinely caring is all you need to do.
If any of these resonate with you, you are not alone. For this and many more reasons, people often avoid having these conversations. When in doubt, just know…
It’s always better to ask
When approached properly, checking in with someone when you suspect they’re struggling is always better than letting it go unchecked.
Trust your gut – whether a friend, family member, co-worker, or stepson’s girlfriend’s second cousin – if you have a relationship with this person and you suspect they may be going through a struggle, chances are you’re not too far off base. If it turns out you were wrong, they will know you care enough to ask and feel you’re a safe person when they do need to talk.
Addressing mental health issues early, having someone to talk to when something is affecting you, is pivotal to stopping the issue from growing into something bigger. Having someone listen to you, help you process your thoughts, allow you to feel connected, normalizes what you’re going through and helps you not feel alone. For many reasons, people don’t always reach out for help when they need it. This is why it is so important to check in early and often.
What is the mental health goal?
The optimally healthy human mental health journey is not about always being happy. It is okay not to be okay! All of our emotions have a function and are how we grow. We are allowed, and expected, to feel. Struggles become a problem when they get to a place where they negatively impact our lives and require support to get through. The goal is to realize what you’re feeling, why you’re feeling it, and learn the skills to work through it.
Normalizing mental health
Mental health is a human journey we all walk through our entire lives, with both ups and downs. Recognize that someone going through a struggle is not weak or broken. Recognize that because someone is happy and healthy today, doesn’t mean they will be tomorrow. At some point in our lives, we are all going to experience challenges.
So, what can we do to normalize mental health? Learn. Spread awareness. Use language to separate the person from the problem. We are built to talk and share. This is what will help us move toward a healthier future.
Steps to Support
On March 7th, with much gratitude for the many local mental health experts who helped us compile and refine the content, the Social Impact Lab launched what we hope will be a useful tool for the community and create positive impact in the lives of those who use it… and those they support.
Steps to Support is a free, online experience that supports readiness for the natural support role by equipping individuals with the language of support, building competencies and confidence, reducing fear around mental health conversations, and removing the stigma associated with mental health concerns. The design has been heavily focused on ease of access and is written to be easy to learn, regardless of your knowledge of mental health.
We hope this tool will be useful for you in your journey. Please share it with those you believe it could help.