Wednesday 26 February 2020

It's Okay If You Don't Know How to Help Me

Came to you with a broken faith.
Gave me more than a hand to hold.
Caught before I hit the ground.
Tell me I’m safe, you’ve got me now.

(Jess Glynne, “Take Me Home”)

Listening to Spotify recently I came across Take Me Home by Jess Glynne. In the artist’s words, “This is a song about the need to have someone who cares when you are at your most vulnerable.” I’m fortunate to have people like that in my life. People who are there for me and allow me to be there for them. You might imagine this kind of support means always knowing how to help, but that’s not the case at all.

It feels good when you’re able to offer what someone needs; be that words of comfort or advice, or practical assistance. But there are times when you will have neither the words nor any clear idea of what to do. It is important to recognise and accept when this happens without feeling a failure to yourself or the person you want to help. As I’ve written elsewhere:

Don’t feel paralysed or useless if you can’t think of anything that could possibly help. If you are present and engaged, you are helping. Often, that is precisely — and all — that is needed. You’d be surprised how rare a gift holding space for someone can be.

The same applies when you’re the one in need of support. I’ve been feeling low for a while now. A number of things are contributing to this; chief amongst them is a deep-seated uncertainty about what direction to move in career-wise. A good friend of mine, mental health blogger Aimee Wilson, messaged me after I’d told her I wasn’t doing too well.

“Are you still struggling, Marty?”

“Kinda, yeah.”

“Want to talk about it or no?”

I appreciated the gentle way she invited me to share. Nevertheless, I hesitated. I wondered what she might think if I unburdened myself about something I’d previously only mentioned to her in passing. I needed to share with someone, though and took the plunge. Aimee waited while I explained how the workplace role I’ve held for decades is coming to an end. There are opportunities to retrain but a new technical role isn’t what I want at this point in my life and career. The mental health and wellbeing work I’ve been involved in over the past two years interests me far more but there are no full-time positions of that kind where I work. I stopped typing and waited for Aimee’s reply.

“I won’t pretend that I understand the work side of your struggle but the little bit you said on mental health ... I think that as long as you aren’t pretending that you know how the service user feels and are always advising from your carer’s insight then you definitely know what you’re talking about. If I met someone struggling with their carer role then I’d definitely pass them on to you. I’m that confident that you understand and it’s something you’re very good at.”

I agreed with what Aimee said. I’m a mental health first aider. I’ve had many people tell me I’ve helped them, including carers who support friends and relatives. The book I wrote with Fran has received some great feedback. The problem is I don’t know how to turn this into a paid role in the workplace. We continued chatting and Aimee suggested a few options I might explore.

“Aimee, thanks for asking how I am. I’m pretty much at sea career-wise right now and your support makes a difference.”

“Glad I can be helpful! It’s that thing again about not wanting the friendship to be one-sided. I want you to know that as much as you’re there for me, I’m here for you.”

I knew what she meant. It’s important to both of us that our friendship is mutually supportive. That doesn’t mean things are equal all the time but in any healthy friendship there is balance and the trust that each can rely on the other. On this occasion, Aimee knew just what to say. She invited me to share if I was ready and offered support and encouragement. A few days later I checked in with her and asked how things were going. She said she was okay. There was a pause, then she asked:

“Are you okay, Marty?”

“Not so great.”


“The work thing, mostly. I feel really stuck.”

There was another short pause, then:

“I don’t know how else to help.”

It was an admission that in another context might have seemed like failure. Maybe Aimee felt it that way. But I reassured her that she was helping because she cared. I messaged her the next day:

“Thank you for checking in with me last night. In a funny way, you saying you didn’t know how else to help really helped. Because what it said to me was, ‘I don’t know what to do or say right now, Marty, but I’m here.’”

There have been plenty of times when I’ve not known how to help Aimee. We were out one day last year when Aimee was suddenly taken with excruciating pain. We spent five and a half hours at the hospital A&E department while nurses and doctors attempted to deal with Aimee’s pain and establish what was going on. There was very little I could do to help. If I'm honest I felt pretty useless. I remember saying, “I wish I could take the pain away, Aimee, but I can’t so I’ll do what I can.”

She wasn’t up to talking much until the pain was brought under control but I sat with her. Asked the medical staff for updates when they seemed to have forgotten us. Watched Grey’s Anatomy with her on her iPad. At one point she was concerned that the battery pack for her phone and iPad would run out of charge if she had to stay overnight, and she didn’t have her plug-in charger.

“If they keep you in, Aimee, I’ll lend you mine.” I paused for effect. “That's how much I love you!”

I was rewarded with a smile, which was a blessing in the circumstances.

I want to close with an excerpt from High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend's Guide to Bipolar Disorder which I wrote with my best friend and co-author Fran Houston:

The most important role you can fill is that of someone your friend can rely on, feel safe with, and trust to be always there. Fran has friends “who are designated to be the string of my balloon.” We keep her grounded in times of mania and prevent her from sinking too deeply when she is in depression.

It is a cornerstone of our friendship that I am available for Fran no matter what is happening. We have spent many hours together when she has felt depressed, manic, anxious, afraid, or suicidal. There is little I can do to help on a practical level, but I can listen and talk with her. Above all, I can simply be there so that she knows she is not alone.

I think that says it pretty well. It’s okay if you don’t always know what to do or how to help. Of course, it’s also okay to ask your friend or loved one what they need!


Have there been times when you wanted to help someone but didn’t know what to do or say? Have you asked for help but the person you asked didn’t know how? How did it feel? Was it a problem for you and the other person? Fran and I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment.


  1. Hi Martin,
    I stumbled upon your website kind of by accident but I'm really glad I did. Your post struck a nerve with me; as someone who suffers from mental illness it's important to me that I have a strong support system...that being said, not everyone in that system is able to offer the same quality or type of support, and that's ok. I rely on my wife for a large amount of support, but also on my employer (who knows all about my illness) who understands when I need to take a mental health day. They don't offer suggestions or counseling when my symptoms flare up, they simply are there, supporting me emotionally as well as financially.

    As helpful as formal therapy and medication is sometimes the best treatment is a welcoming smile or a loving embrace, something that says "I'm here for you".

    Keep up the good work, I'll be reading more of your blog.

    Take care,
    Tim Ouellette

    1. Cheers, Tim. That means a lot to me. I sometimes wonder how much of what Fran and I share here resonates with others, so when someone takes the time to reach out and say or show that they "get it" - well, yeah. Thank you. It sounds like you have a strong support team there for you which is brilliant.
      Best wishes,