When someone tells you they’re suffering: what’s the right thing to say?

A few months ago, before The Moody Mom was hatched, I was looking for a volunteer gig where I could take what I’d learned from my own experience with mental illness and help others. I heard about a text crisis line. So I signed up to become a volunteer crisis counselor.

For the text crisis line, text the message “hello” to the number 741741. A trained counselor will respond anytime 24/7. You can text about anything. It’s free.

Just the application was rigorous. They want volunteers who had experience, were dedicated, and could work at least one middle of the night shift per week. I was accepted and started on my 30 hour self guided training.

The first training module was on what you say when a person first texts and tells you they have a problem. What I learned was that everything I thought I knew about what to say was wrong! For example, they tell you they are depressed. Here’s what not to say:

  • Why are you depressed?
  • What happened?
  • But you seem fine.
  • You shouldn’t be depressed
  • We all have problems. Just buck up!
  • Here’s what you should do….
  • (Spiritual people) God doesn’t want you to be depressed
  • Smile!

Unless you are a trained (as in professional) therapist, avoid giving advice. Why? Because their problem is much bigger that what they were able to express to you in a few sentences. You do not know enough about their situation to give advice. It could be harmful. And no one wants to feel belittled, so never say they shouldn’t be depressed or SMILE! Here’s what you should say:

  • It sounds like you’re really struggling
  • I’m so sorry you’re going through this
  • I’m here to listen
  • Tell me more about how you feel
  • I understand
  • (Spiritual people) Would you like me to pray with you?
  • It’s ok to feel sad

After the 2 hour training module there was a test. You get two chances to pass. Guess who flunked it both times? I decided I wasn’t cut out to be a crisis counselor. Plus staying up all night didn’t sound very realistic to this sleep-lover.

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5 thoughts on “When someone tells you they’re suffering: what’s the right thing to say?

  1. The what not to say-answers made me smile, just imagine someone texting you back: ‘Smile!’ What should be in that list is the ‘I understand’. I don’t like it when people say that too much. They don’t. But that’s just me. It was a fun post to read!

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    1. Thanks. The message I learned from crisis training was really just listening, acknowledging, and validating their feelings. Maybe saying “it’s understandable why you would feel that way” would be better

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Wow, this was great. I even had a counselor who did all of the “things not to say”. It was absolutely terrible. Thankfully, I was seeing another therapist too, and I was in a healthy enough state to know that this counselor just wasn’t good at his job. I’ve also had well – meaning family tell me “God or my dad, who recently passed away, doesn’t want me to be sad”. Thankfully, I was in a healthy enough state to tell them that it’s okay for me to be sad, depressed, and grieve. It’s normal, and I don’t have to be happy all the time. Yes, grief can be uncomfortable, but it’s more helpful when people sit in our mess with us, hold our hand for support rather than try to give advice. And yes, I agree with the above person who said people will often say, “I understand” when they don’t out project their own stuff onto your issue rather than just listen. There’s definitely a place for advice, but if someone isn’t asking for it, don’t give it. I’ve had to limit what I share with certain people who often just want to “fix me” rather than love me and support me where I am.

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    1. I too have had a couple of bad therapists. One who I went to in a severe depression, told me I was a drug addict because I had done some binge drinking in college. One psychiatrist told me on the first visit I needed to check myself into a mental hospital. I was in no way a threat to myself or others. Recently, I read that drs get “referral fees” from these expensive mental hospitals. I’m working on a post on that right now

      Liked by 1 person

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