Shortly after news broke that gymnast Simone Biles had unexpectedly withdrawn from an Olympic event because she wasn’t in “the right head space” to compete, reactions to her decision poured forth. While many people were supportive , others appeared to be far less understanding — reflecting what experts say is a long-standing, and problematic, view of mental health challenges. Biles' very public decision offers an opportunity to learn about the right and wrong ways to support someone who’s going through a difficult time mentally or emotionally.
Do: Offer a safe space
“The first step is providing the space and providing the invitation for the person to explore what’s going on,” said Mark Aoyagi, co-director of sports and performance psychology at the University of Denver. If the person takes you up on your invitation, ask them how they are doing. You don’t have to shy away from potentially sensitive subjects. It’s also important to figure out how a person is addressing their issues, said Theresa Nguyen, a licensed clinical social worker and chief program officer of Mental Health America. If, for instance, a person is still trying to make sense of what their next step is, you may be able to help them think it through. But above all, prioritize listening. “When we’re in moments of suffering, what we want is empathy and listening,” Nguyen said.
Don’t: Dispense unsolicited advice
Fight the urge to try to immediately fix what’s wrong. “The more you’re able to listen and the less providing advice — unless you’re explicitly asked to provide advice — the better,” said Lynn Bufka, a senior director at the American Psychological Association. “You want to have the opportunity for the person to tell you what’s going on in the most nonjudgmental way possible.” If the person asks you for space, respect their wishes, said Akua K. Boateng, a psychotherapist in Philadelphia.
Do: Validate and affirm decisions
When someone is going through a tough time, it helps to know that others understand and accept their struggle. If they have made a decision about their next move, affirm that choice, if you can. “Sometimes people feel alone in making strong decisions,” Boateng said. To counter that, she suggested reassuring the person that you’re there to listen and support them. If someone has made up their mind, avoid asking questions such as “Are you sure?” Nguyen said. Instead, shift your focus to how you can help the person navigate the next steps.
Do: Ask how you can support them
It’s important to ask someone how you can be most helpful to them. Try to be positive without “bypassing or overlooking the pain and suffering” someone is experiencing, Boateng said.
Don’t: Engage in toxic positivity
" Toxic positivity," or the tendency to cope with a bad situation by putting a positive spin on it and ignoring the negative, can be “disguised as genuine support,” Boateng said. Avoid phrases such as “Push through,” “Everything is going to be fine” or “There’s always next time.” “You almost assuredly have not walked in that person’s shoes and experienced the things that that person has, so trying to tell the person, ‘Oh, it’s going to be OK,’ while well-meaning, it often feels devaluing of what the person’s struggle is,” Bufka said. Additionally, toxic positivity may encourage a person to stay in a situation that they’ve already determined isn’t healthy for them, Nguyen said.
Do: Respect privacy
Be sure to ask how much information about their situation the person experiencing problems is comfortable with you sharing. If you don’t have permission, “it’s best to assume you shouldn’t be sharing anything private about other people’s lives,” Nguyen said. If you are asked, it’s important to be honest without disclosing too much, Bufka said. Some possible responses: “It was a very personal/ difficult decision/ situation,” or “They could use support right now.”
Do: Offer to help
You can help someone establish perspective and encourage them to give themselves permission to make a change, Aoyagi said. But offer more than emotional support. Ask if you can provide meals, run errands or schedule a walk.
Don’t: Take on more than you can handle
As you’re providing support, it’s important to realize your own limits and know when it might be time to involve a mental health professional, Bufka said. “We don’t have to be perfect in our answers,” Boateng said. “Just doing your best sometimes may not be the complete support that they need. That’s why it really takes a community, not just one person.”