by Suzanne Grimmesey, MFT, Santa Barbara County, Behavioral Wellness Department

In addition to a myriad of health, economic, and societal issues related to COVID, an alarming increase in mental health issues has also been documented, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a recent report. Without the usual social supports, including regularly being around loved ones, some are struggling and may need professional help.

If you suspect that friends, family members, co-workers, caregivers or others in your sphere are suffering, there are ways to safely help them during these difficult times.

5 Ways to help:

1. Ask questions and listen up. 

Even if you can’t physically interact with someone, you can still observe signs and signals that help may be needed.  Video chats, phone calls and texts are safe ways to communicate and may provide insight as to whether or not the person is having a difficult time.  Ask questions to see if normal routines such as regular bathing, brushing their teeth, going for a walk are being followed.  You can also glean insight from questions about whether or not they have food at home, are they keeping their spaces clean and changing their clothing regularly.  If your outreach efforts are being ignored, or if the person has changed their ways of communicating, such as no longer attending virtual celebrations, these could be signs that help may be needed.

2. Normalize conversations about mental health.

Right now, after several months of the pandemic, pretty much everyone is stressed and burned out.  While people may feel uncomfortable discussing their mental distress while so much is going on, it is important that conversations happen around mental health. Just like asking how someone is feeling physically, also ask how they are doing mentally.  If issues are shared, affirm their feelings, ask how you can help them, and follow up in a few days to see if things have improved or not.  Don’t hesitate to call, text or email them with a follow up about expressed concerns!  Knowing that you care and that you are really listening to what they are telling you is critical.

Also, when you ask somebody how they are, be sure to stop and wait for the answer.  Let them know that this is something that you really care about and want to hear, and you want to pay attention. Sometimes people just want to fix it, and a lot of people who are stressed out just want somebody to listen, so listen for verbal clues about what the person really needs in the moment.

3. DO ask about your concerns for their self-harm or suicide.

Sometimes people are reluctant to directly ask someone whether they have thought about harming themselves because they may be worried about causing offense or putting the thought into that person’s head. Or they’re afraid they won’t know what to do if the answer is yes.  But asking about self-harm or suicide doesn’t increase risk, in fact, especially if you say, “I’m just concerned about you, I want to make sure you’re doing okay,” that’s actually a signal to them that you really care, and that you are someone they can turn to for support.

Begin by explaining why you’re concerned — for instance, telling people you noticed their mood has changed and that they’re not using social media anymore.  Not only are you asking the question, you are acknowledging that you’re paying attention and are concerned. If people tell you they are having suicidal thoughts, let them know that you are going to continue to support them during this time and you’re going to walk alongside them to help get the support they need.

4. Be informed on how you can help.

If someone shared with you that they are not ok, respond with affirmation and validation.  You may also thank them for opening up and trusting you to talk about what is going on and commend them on their courage to share their struggles.

It is important that you do not promise to keep their admission about suicide or self- harm a secret, even if it makes them angry.  At this point, you will want to help connect them with a trained professional as quickly as possible.  In Santa Barbara County, the Behavioral Wellness 24/7 Access Line can be called at 1-888-868-1649.

You should continue to provide support by offering encouragement through regular communication with the person.  If you live with them, and are concerned about self- harm or suicide, you should remove access to any weapons or potentially harmful substances. Help them focus on feeling better through short-term solutions, such as planning a distanced meet up with a friend or family member or taking a walk outside. Be proactive by scheduling times to talk with them and helping them find new ways to increase connections with others.

5. Consistency Matters! Follow up and stay connected.

Even if you can’t physically be with someone who is having a hard time, there are ways to remind them that they still have strong connections to people who care. Continue to schedule regular check-ins via phone calls or video, and consider offering support in more spontaneous ways, such as sending a thoughtful card or small gifts, so they know you are thinking of them and care about them.

You may wish to make a list of people you want to stay in touch with who will also support you in return.  There are certain things that, as a loved one, you can say to somebody that therapists can’t say or don’t say, such as: “No matter what, I’ll always be there for you,” or, “You mean so much to me,” or, “I love you.” Those are lifesaving words that only loved ones can say that are incredibly connecting and powerful for people who are feeling desperate and alone.” It is important to remember that you may be more capable of helping someone through a tough time than you realize.

Suzanne Grimmesey, MFT, is the County of Santa Barbara’s Chief Quality Care and Strategy Officer and is responsible for leadership of Quality Care and Strategy Management within the Department of Behavioral Wellness.