Despite training as a psychologist, I kinda suck at a number of aspects of human-human interaction (to be clear, I am totally fine with human-plant interaction 🌴)
One of those is helping people during a crisis.
Because of this, I’ve made it a personal/professional goal to more regularly update my knowledge on the principles of helping others in times of difficulty.
Truth is, we’ll all be counted on at some point to help another person through a difficult situation: a friend, a family member, a colleague, a peer, a stranger. This is especially relevant in the times we currently live in (COVID-19) where people’s lives have been turned upside down, often at short notice.
Some of us will have a natural affinity for helping. Others of us will need to follow some basic guidelines so that we don’t get too wrapped up or overwhelmed in the moment. We all, however, have the capacity to help another human being.
In this blog post, I draw on some of the principles of Psychological First Aid, to create a simple guideline for how to be supportive to someone during a difficult time.
What kinds of situations are we talking about here?
Someone you know is in crisis (e.g. housing, financial, emotional)
You’ve come across someone who has just been through something very upsetting (i.e. traumatic incident, critical incident)
You’re talking to someone dealing with the aftermath of a stressful or upsetting event
Someone is just having a really bad day (e.g. failure, breakup)
Someone is experiencing a flare-up of an existing health or mental health condition
Really we are talking about encountering someone who is in distress, regardless of the source of that distress.
What will be helpful to that person?
Sometimes we place pressure on ourselves to be the perfect support, but that seems like an unrealistic goal and you might become so focused on trying to respond perfectly that you aren’t really mindful and present to what is actually happening.
I think of it instead as trying to achieve the following:
Do/say more helpful things than unhelpful things. Helpful things > unhelpful things.
So what will likely be helpful?
- Create and move the person (if necessary) to a physically safe space, that is, removed from threat and triggers if possible, and where they can feel safe.
- Actually set aside time to spend with them. This might mean delaying another appointment.
- Try to remain calm yourself through deep slow breaths and slowing down your language and movements.
- Remain hopeful and try not to descend into a shared hopelessness.
- Help them connect them with existing supports (personal or professional) – “is there anyone we should ring?”
- Help them in meeting any current needs – medical, water, shelter, care, warmth, clothing etc
- Ask them what they think the next step might be and assist them in taking that step if necessary.
- Remind them of their ability to cope and problem-solve and remind them that you can help them with that.
- Provide reassurance that their emotional reaction is normal and part of the coping process.
- Help them make sense of what has happened (if you have enough information).
- Connect them with previous coping efforts – has this happened before? What helped?
- Let them know that you believe in their ability to cope and take the next steps.
- Give them the space and time to slowly calm down. This includes just sitting silently at times. Silence can be very therapeutic.
- Give them the choice of how much they want to talk about it.
- Express hope and optimism that they will find a way through.
- Support them in making a connection with a professional service if intensity or severity is high – e.g. lifeline, crisis line, intake team, ED, welfare.
- Remind and reassure them that further assistance can be obtained if necessary.
- Assist them in making any decisions (but not making the decisions for them).
What probably won’t be helpful
- Getting them to talk about the event more than they want to.
- Giving specific advice on what they should do. This can undermine their own sense of being able to cope and make decisions.
- Trying to diagnose or label what it is they are going through (I’m talking to those of you studying degrees like psychology!).
- Rushing them or telling them to relax.
- Quizzing them excessively for details or bombarding them with questions.
- Becoming agitated yourself. This can be hard if the person is very distressed or has been through something that hearing about it distresses us as well.
- Using the opportunity to describe your own problems.
Even if you leave this article with just one core thing you’ll try the next time you encounter someone in distress, then that is a good thing. For example, I am going to try and focus on giving less advice and instead focus on reminding the person that I’m confident they will work out a way of coping and simply offering my help in finding that way.
What have you found useful when assisting someone in distress? Or another way of looking at it, what has another person done for you, when you were distressed, that you found helpful?