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How to safely and effectively check in with friends and family


Illustration of two people having a conversation
Original image by tdsouzpro127653 | Vecteezy


Tips & tricks by Lauren Hubbard


We are constantly being reminded to check in with friends and family –but how do we do it well whilst keeping our own emotions in check? Lauren Hubbard offers her tips.


Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health and wellbeing was recognised as a huge area for development. This seems to be the case even more so now as reminders to check in with one another are so frequent that it can sometimes feel like we are being bombarded with messages to do so.


Checking in with friends and family is of course a good idea. But a problem with many of the current campaigns asking people to do so is that they often lack detail as to what these ‘checking in' conversations actually look and feel like, with little recognition of protecting our own mental health at the same time.


This can be particularly problematic for those of us abiding by the traditional ‘stiff upper lip’ British culture, making us more likely to respond with ‘I’m fine’ rather than allowing ourselves to feel and express our emotions.


Having discussed this topic with friends who work in Mental health services, this article intends to offer tips on how to check in on others safely and meaningfully whilst also identifying when professional input may be needed.





Checking in on your own feelings

If you check in with someone else with the intention to stop them feeling a certain way, all the while ignoring your own emotions, this rarely ends well. In the mental health world, there is a phrase for this: ‘we can’t pour from an empty cup’.


Essentially, this means that if we aren’t feeling happy and healthy within ourselves and we go checking in with someone else, it’s unlikely that we can truly help them. For example, if I am feeling panicked about something and I share this with a friend who also responds with panic and fear, it can keep my anxiety going. And if we respond to big emotions with discomfort or our own difficult emotions, then we can send the message that we are not okay with hearing this.


So, next time you are presented with the opportunity to talk with someone about their own emotions, ask yourself: ‘am I comfortable with hearing difficult experiences or emotions?’.





It’s okay to not have the answers (it might be better to not have any)

When we share how we are feeling, rarely are we looking for others to provide solutions or offer advice. A therapeutic approach known as motivational interviewing takes the assumption that we all have the answers within us, we just need help in drawing those answers out. Phrases like ‘have you tried this...’ or ‘what you need to do is…’ are not always what we want to hear. Instead, guiding people to reach conclusions by themselves can be far more effective.


Motivational interviewing is by no means easy and is a skill in itself. Here is a link with some of the key principles that underpin the technique. Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change is also a very good introduction to the theory behind motivational interviewing and provides vivid examples of using it in practice.


Be genuinely curious about their experiences

It can be difficult to take the leap and finally open up to someone. But asking open questions can make a world of difference.


These are usually questions that attempt to find out whats, whys, whens, and whos, such as ‘why do you think you might be feeling this way?’ or ‘what helps when you feel like this?’.


Remember though that asking these kinds of questions require patience – because they don’t provide a binary choice (i.e. ‘yes’ or ‘no’), it can take time to formulate an answer. It might take even longer than usual for someone who is having a hard time dealing with their emotions.


Giving them this opportunity to talk openly helps them realise that you are genuinely interested in how they’re feeling, and not just going through the motions.



 

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Thank them for sharing

With all the good an open question can do, it needs to be followed up with positive appraisal to encourage further opening up in future and to let them feel supported. Phrases such as ‘well I’d feel stressed too if I was dealing with what you’re experiencing’ show that we genuinely empathise and understand. By acknowledging how hard it must be and thanking the other person, you’re showing that you want to understand their experiences.


Get ‘in tune’ with the other person

When I was training as a practitioner we were taught the ‘principles of attunement’ which are essentially guidelines on how to connect and resonate with someone. I believe that anyone can apply these principles in their everyday conversations.


One of the principles is called ‘receiving’. We show that we are receiving and actively listening through:

  • Giving someone our full attention

  • Reducing distractions

  • Our body language, e.g maintaining eye contact and nodding

  • Showing warmth through our tone of voice

  • Being playful and friendly when it’s appropriate to do so


In general conversations we struggle to listen because we are already planning our response. But if we really tune in and listen, this allows us to see past someone’s words. If a friend says that they are fine, yet they’ve stopped coming to social gatherings or seem down more often than not, we know that there could be more going on. It could take a few check ins before they feel comfortable to share more. Don’t take it personally if someone isn’t responding to you or telling you how they feel right away. Communicating our emotional experience is just as much of a skill as supporting those experiences.





Don’t be afraid to ask the big questions

Contrary to common belief, you will not put ideas into people’s heads if you ask them questions related to self-harm or suicide. Understandably this can create anxieties, thus stopping us from asking such questions. As a previous practitioner, I would ask these questions to every young person that I worked with. Well known organisations such as The


We do not want to replace professional services and you are not in someone’s life to be their therapist, but asking these questions can help us all to move past any stigma associated with these conversations.


Remember to check in on what feels comfortable for you. It can feel better to do this in a group format or with the support of someone else.


My friend checked in on a group of his friends shortly after restrictions lifted. He expressed relief at having asked the bigger questions because, although no one had experienced thoughts of suicide, it opened up a platform where everyone disclosed feelings of low mood or anxiety during lockdown. It just takes one person to push past the discomfort of asking important questions for the stigma to peel away ever so slightly. This was especially important for my friendship group which consists of men.





What if the answer to the big questions is yes?

Stay calm and remember: you asking these questions allows a person to see that it’s okay to discuss it. When we feel low or anxious, we can be hyper-focused on other people’s responses to us. They need to see that you can receive the information.


A ‘yes’ to these questions, might be an indicator that more professional support is needed. Keep those attunement principles in mind, and consider exploring how open the other person is to receiving more professional means of support.


Agree on a basic wellness plan

Agree on a verbal or written plan which provides helpful information about a person’s wellbeing. It doesn’t have to be as formal as a written document – it can consist of one or two bits of information and agreed actions completed by you and the person you’re checking in with.


As part of that plan, you can clarify the little details around how the person likes to be supported. An example of this is that one person may appreciate a phone call, another may prefer text messages or sending you one word or symbol that tells you ‘I need some help here’.





Check in on their social support

If it’s a yes to the big questions, it’s good to ask if anyone else is aware. You should not hold big information on your own. It’s not great for us to be the only means of support for someone as it can create an over-reliance on us, which is another reason why checking in as a group or with the help of another is safer, as long as that feels comfortable for the person you’re checking in with.


As part of a plan, it’s useful to ask ‘who else can you talk to’. You can encourage them to identify trusted, ‘safe’ people. If someone can identify just one person, whether they are currently in their life or from the past, you can discuss what it is about these people that is trustworthy. Exploring this is a simple way of enabling someone to understand what responses are helpful to them and what responses aren’t so beneficial.


Have some knowledge of helplines and services up your sleeve

You do not have to have specialist knowledge, you are not a professional mental health worker. Alongside the personal people in their lives, make a list of relevant online resources

or helplines. Here are some suggestions:

I’d encourage you to have a good look at websites and services before extending an emotional hand. Lots of factors prevent us from meaningfully engaging in support when we are struggling, you could help just by reassuring others about what these services actually do.


It’s good to have the knowledge but don’t be tempted to do everything for someone. We can gently provide information but we can’t force someone to access these services or fill in the paperwork for them, so to speak.





Put forward suggestions for how you can support

Whilst questions and phrases like ‘What do you need?’ or ‘if there is anything that I can do, please ask’ show someone that you are here for them, you may need to offer more. If someone feels low and we ask them what they need, this can place pressure on them to have the answers.


As part of a verbal or written plan, be prepared to offer suggestions based on what you know about the person. If I know that my friend likes walking but his depression demotivates him, I could suggest that we meet twice a week and go for a walk. Small, achievable activities, help us to connect with our environment using our body and senses which can distract us from our stressors or worries. An agreed plan helps us to move away from advice giving and towards eliciting their ideas and making suggestions based on what has come from them.


Make your boundaries clear, to yourself and the person you want to support

Putting forward realistic suggestions that you can commit to helps you to establish your boundaries whilst also communicating the limits of support. This relates back to the big questions; it’s okay to express that you don’t feel qualified to fully support self-harm or suicidal thoughts and instead share relevant services that can help. It’s key that we express this empathetically, and avoid diving straight in with when you can’t help.


There is no perfect recipe for checking in on someone and no one gets it right every time. Mental health professionals get it wrong sometimes because they are also human beings with their own emotional worlds. We should not be there to replace the role of mental health services but by asking more questions, truly listening and working together towards agreed actions, we can help each other to feel better connected and supported by one another.

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