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Connecting with Someone in Distress

Source: Adele Dunn, NAMI Flagstaff, 2021

Suggestions on how to approach a person in distress:

  • Greet them in a calm voice and let them know you are there to help them.

  • Talk to them in a space that is comfortable, where you’re not likely to be interrupted and where there are minimal distractions.

  • Initially mirror their speed of talking. If they are agitated and talking quickly, respond at their pace to let them know you understand that they are upset, then gradually set a slower pace.

  • Ease into your questions gradually. It is likely that the person has trust issues and is not ready to talk.

  • Avoid talking too much, too rapidly or too loudly. Silence and pauses are ok.

  • Communicate in a straightforward manner and stick to one topic at a time.

  • Be respectful, and acknowledge their feelings such as “It looks like you’re having a really bad day…. How long have you been feeling this way?”

  • Instead of ‘you’ statements, (e.g. “You need to settle down”), use ‘I’ statements. “I can see you’re upset (scared, hurt, angry). I can wait until you feel calmer,” etc.)

  • Make soft eye contact but don’t stare at them.

  • Don’t get into their personal space. Try to stand an arm’s length away.

  • When asking a question, be patient. Give them time to formulate a response.

  • Actually listen to what they’re saying and don’t press for personal details too quickly. Approach personal questions with “I need to ask you some sensitive questions, do you feel up to that?

  • Reduce any defensiveness by sharing your feelings and looking for common ground. (“Yeah… I’ve felt that way a time or two.”)

  • Speak at a level appropriate to their age. Keep in mind that mental illness has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence.

  • Be aware of what upsets or calms the person during your conversation with them. (“I notice you get agitated when I approach that subject.”)

  • Do not try to interpret their symptoms. Comment on what you’re seeing (“I see your legs are shaking” and ask them what they are experiencing).

  • Genuinely express your concern. Ask them what usually helps when they’re feeling this way. Who can I call for you? How can I help?

  • In short… Observe, ask, listen and respond.

Things to Avoid Saying:

  • “You need to change you’re attitude.”

  • “Don’t lie to me, you’re exaggerating, or you’re making that up.”

  • “Quit feeling sorry for yourself.”

  • “You have the same illness as my (whoever).”

  • “Yes, we all feel a little crazy now and then.”

Things to Avoid Doing:

  • Criticizing blaming or raising your voice at them.

  • Talking too much, too rapidly, too loudly. Silence and pauses are ok.

  • Showing any form of hostility towards them.

  • Assuming things about them or their situation.

  • Being sarcastic or making jokes about their condition.

  • Patronizing them or saying anything condescending.


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