Supporting loved ones: should you ‘Check in’ or be ‘with’?
On our social media feeds, we may come across friends sharing posts that encourage others to check in with those experiencing a period of mental ill health or a life altering event that has shut them down in some way. While the sentiment is very much appreciated, I wanted to explore in this brief article what you are offering others, your ability to deliver on any promises made and the perception of that support that may not be received in the way you might have hoped.
The invitation by others to those in potential distress with the offer ‘call me any time’, while a generous offer as most counsellors and even other health professionals may attest, can also be problematic. Counsellors/psychotherapists are trained to be aware of boundaries, the BACP, NEC and UKCP place within their guidelines the need for counsellors to be up front with the client about what they can and cannot provide. Therefore, counsellors will do such things as set hours they can be contacted, be clear in session what sort of relationship they are offering the client and rules around confidentiality, which can be found in the counsellors’ therapeutic contract.
There is nothing wrong with family members or friends offering support, but we should keep in mind what we can and what we cannot offer. Someone going through a difficult time could become disheartened very quickly if they take a person’s offer to ring ‘anytime’ and they are not available. There is also the added danger that the person suffering may see this gesture as virtue signalling and you did not mean what you said.
If a friend or family member reaches out for support, be empathetic and maybe ask them what they need from you and when you can offer that support. Boundaries help to support others while also preventing us from being overwhelmed ourselves, the main thing to consider is that you do what you say you are going to do.
If you feel you cannot provide the support they need then an invention for a more professional approach may be required, such as a support group or counselling. Any recommendation to attend therapy should be framed as an invitation rather than an order, i.e. ‘I feel it would be helpful if you spoke to a professional about this’ rather than ‘you need to see a counsellor’.
Definition of relationship
This concept comes from Systemic therapy and pertains to the idea that how a relationship is experienced is by the nature of that relationship. For example, the parent/child relationship could be seen as a power relationship as parents have authority over young children, an authority that can still be perceived when the child reaches adulthood. The other, such as platonic friendships, are peer to peer in that no one has authority over the other.
There are more than just these two types of relationships that bring further nuance to the way seen by others or how we perceive them; which means that someone going through a mental health crisis may not want disclose to certain members of their social system, either because they do not feel safe sharing for the fear of being dismissed or they do not feel that there is anyone who fills that particular role.
If the sufferer is a friend, maybe consider doing what you would usually do with them, listen to their issues but try not to be their counsellor as this is not how your relationship is defined. If you usually go for coffee at a local coffee shop then do so, this helps people to feel normal and may give them a break from what they are dealing with. Keep in mind the positive ways your relationship works and try to stick as much as possible to support through that lens. As mentioned previously in regards to setting boundaries, being mindful of how our relationships are defined helps us to get a sense of the support we can offer.
‘Checking in’ vs being ‘with’
I use the term 'checking in' to describe when people phone a friend who may be going through difficulties to see how they are. This may be a short conversation and may be experienced by the person going through a tough time as lacking any wish for real connection and they are just making contact out of a felt obligation. The term being ‘with’ I use when the person is offering support may be phoning to arrange a meet up or goes to see the sufferer without being asked, that may give the impression that this person really wants to help me.
This is very similar to how counsellors work, despite the number of therapeutic approaches all with their benefits and limitations, the one constant in the literature is the need for a good therapeutic relationship. The idea of being ‘with’ our client helps to build a professional working relationship with the client and helps them feel heard, continually checking in with the client can affect this relationship as the client may be hearing this from others in their social group and this can become very cumbersome for some.
Meeting up with a person and being with, even in silence can be helpful, just knowing someone is there physically can provide comfort. As a social species physical touch such as a hug or arm around the shoulder helps us to form connections. Consider over the pandemic what you missed with loved ones while seeing each other via video, did those on the screen feel present.
Making an effort to meet in person can help those suffering with their mental health feel more supported. It does not have to be anything major, going for a walk and talking about the everyday may provide some relief and escape to the person going through a difficult time and if they want to talk about their issues provide space for them to do so. I feel it is okay to check in with those we are close to now and again, but I feel it is more helpful to be with them because this provides connection and can communicate to others that you care about their well-being and are there for them.
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