Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Sometimes We Need to Ask the Questions

We don’t have the answers to everything, sometimes we just need to ask the questions.” (John Rotter)

The above quotation is taken from an article by John Rotter, Marketing and Communications Assistant at MHFA England. It expresses perfectly why asking questions is such an important aspect of mental health literacy.

This post was inspired by an open letter to me by fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson in response to an article I wrote recently about imposter syndrome, self-doubt, and legitimacy. In her letter, Aimee described how important it is to have people she can turn to for support.

Having gone through my mental health journey with my Mum being my main source of support, I think that I now know how essential it is to have the support of another person through your times of struggle and the challenges thrown at you. [....] The difficulty comes in allowing yourself to lean on another person or even to just admit that you need to lean on them!

Something she went on to say caught my attention.

I love that you ask me questions when I’m struggling because it’s much more helpful than you just sitting there and nodding along, pretending to understand.

That meant a lot, not least because Fran and I have long advocated asking questions in the context of caring, supportive relationships. But what kinds of questions are most helpful?

What Do You Need?

Asking your friend what they need is one of the simplest and yet most important questions you can ask. This came up recently in conversation with another mental health blogger, Laura Riordan. We were chatting about how we support friends who live with mental health issues, and Laura said:

Maybe I can just listen instead of making any suggestions. Some people desperately want advice [....] And some just want to be heard.

I agreed wholeheartedly.

Yes, Laura. I’m a believer in not pushing suggestions or advice on people unless they ask for it. What people often need is space to share, safe from judgement. The best thing is simply to ask: what do you need right now?

This is echoed in a line from our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder:

Supporting Fran means paying attention to her needs and not assuming I know best. This can be as simple as asking, “What do you need most right now?”

How Is It For You?

For someone like me with no lived experience to draw on, asking questions helps me understand what my friends are going through. That’s what Aimee was talking about when she said she loves that I ask her questions when she is struggling. On that occasion, we were talking about self-harm. I’d asked how it was that sometimes self-harm expresses itself for her as an overdose, sometimes as cutting, sometimes in other ways. Was there a difference, I wondered, in the kind of situations that led to her taking these different actions, what they represented for her, or the effect on her afterwards? Aimee was a little thrown by the questions. I don’t think she had been asked to think about it in quite that way before, but as she wrote in her open letter it was clearly of value to her:

In asking these questions, you’ve helped me to make a better sense of my self-harm and that, is one of the first steps in changing the behaviour and moving forwards in my recovery.

It also helped me learn a little more about what my friend lives with and how she handles things.

Getting Real

Asking questions is not a passive activity. A question invites a response, and you may not get back what you anticipated or are comfortable with. In addition to talking with Aimee about self-harm, conversations with Fran and other friends regularly touch on suicide and suicidal thinking. Things can get real very quickly. Depending on the circumstances, you might want or need to ask further questions or take action. If your friend appears to be struggling, be prepared to ask the important questions.

  • Are you feeling suicidal, or thinking of doing something to harm yourself?
  • Do you feel you are safe right now?
  • Do we need to think about how to help you stay safe?

Also ask how your friend would like you to proceed if you become concerned for their safety. Respect their wishes and opinions, but be clear that you will involve other people or support services if necessary. That way you both know where you stand. We have a selection of crisis lines and support organisations on our Resources page.

Care and Understanding

Questions are not always about crisis, suicide, or self-harm, of course. Asking appropriate questions can let your friend know you are aware of their situation and needs. I described a few such situations in my article 5 Must-Read Rules to Help Your Friend with Anxiety and Bipolar Disorder for Bp Magazine.

I may not have a mental health diagnosis but I struggle too at times. I get stressed, uncertain, frustrated, and stuck. It’s happened quite a lot in the past few months. I’m blessed in having friends who are unafraid to hold things up to the light for me, and that includes asking the kind of questions that challenge me to explore what I think I know, my motives, and expectations. It really helps. Here is an example from a recent chat with Aimee:

Aimee: Hi Marty. How are you?

Marty: I’m OK. I was feeling a bit down over the weekend but am doing better today. I was very busy at work and there were train delays but I’m home now.

Aimee: Aw why do you think you were feeling down?

Marty: After feeling “stuck” for a while, as you know, my writing got going again recently. Our day out in Blyth and joint blogging ideas helped, and the Mental Health First Aid conference I went to. All that gave me a boost. I think what’s happened is that energy has run out of steam a bit. Does that make sense?

Aimee: Of course. Totally understand. Well here’s a little assignment for you...

Aimee invited me to contribute to an article she was writing and shared her draft with me. It helped me shift how I’d been feeling and generated some possible new ways forward. Later, I let her know how much I appreciated the support.

Marty: Thank you for asking if I knew why I’d been feeling down, Aimee. It helped me focus on what might have been behind it. Also, thanks for knowing that giving me a “little assignment” would help!

Aimee: Of course! This friendship isn’t just you being here for me when I’m struggling!

Ask Yourself First

It can be helpful to ask questions, but that doesn’t mean bombarding your friend with them all the time. It’s also important not to come across as insincere, patronising, or condescending. These are sure ways to annoy and alienate someone! If you are at all unsure, take a few moments and ask yourself a few questions before proceeding.

  • What do I want to achieve by asking this question?
  • Am I inviting my friend to do something, or to share something with me?
  • Am I prepared for whatever kind of response I get back, be that positive, negative, partial, uncertain, none at all, or my friend asking me a question in return?

Finally, is this question, and my motive for asking it, kind in mind and heart?

Over to You

What is the best, most insightful question you have ever been asked? What kinds of questions do not help you at all? Have you asked someone a question that made a real difference? Are there times you feel questions are inappropriate or unnecessary? We’d love to hear from you.

 

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