Helping others

Knowing what to say can be daunting

Many of us have had the experience of seeing a friend or colleague in distress, either through personal or professional situations. Knowing what to say can be daunting, especially if we don’t feel confident in dealing with potentially emotionally reactive outcomes.

We know that legal work can bring enormous emotional distress through the types of cases and clients some practitioners are exposed to, along with court appearances and highly conflictual litigation.

Seeing a colleague distressed or struggling can be evidenced in the more obvious ways of crying or perhaps anger. The less obvious ways may be through undue aggressiveness, exaggerated emotional responses, presenteeism, absenteeism, withdrawal or isolation, failure to participate in or initiate tasks.

Identifying the symptoms of suicidal behaviour can easily be misinterpreted or ignored, even by mental health professionals. The best advice is to try and understand your colleague or friend’s behaviour in context, that is, are they now unusually moody, have you noticed any suggestion of substance abuse, is there an increase in risky behaviour, self-harm, emotional outbursts, or disconnection.

Listen closely to your colleague’s conversation – are they saying they feel worthless, hopeless, or cannot see a future. If you feel alarmed or overly concerned, share your concerns with your colleague. Tell them you need to contact a family member or suggest you take them to hospital. They may need an anonymous chat – for help they can call the Suicide Line Victoria on 1300 651 251.

Sometimes a more insidious distress creeps in and that is the one imposed upon ourselves. Many professionals are also harsh critics of their own capacities. High expectations, perfectionism and the resultant fear of failure can significantly impact coping versus acopic mechanisms to manage emotional states.

Below are ten practical suggestions that may provide some valuable initial support

  • When asking ‘are you ok’ or ‘how are things for you at the moment’, you are immediately letting someone know that you care and are prepared to have this conversation.

  • It is important to know what to say, but first of all, you have to feel ok with having the discussion. That means, not being afraid, intimidated or judgemental about what may be revealed in the conversation.

  • Do not have the conversation in the hallway or in front of the lift. Try and find a space that is as private as possible. Let them know that the conversation is confidential.

  • No-one is expecting you to be a psychologist or counsellor. Just let the person talk.

  • Validate what your colleague is saying – minimising or negating their words does nothing and is not comforting.

  • That you have even bothered to show your concern is very significant and powerful. This demonstrates empathy and emotional support.

  • Provide only one or two suggestions, advice or tips. Be pragmatic. Too much advice can be equally distressing because it is overwhelming.

  • You cannot say the wrong thing.

  • Offer some actionable help, e.g. offer to print out some of the resources and tip sheets on this portal.

  • If you feel more help is needed, suggest psychological services nominated on this portal.

  • If there is suicidality (thoughts, feelings, plans, talk), let your colleague or friend know that you cannot leave them and contact an immediate family member. You may also need to contact a local Crisis Assessment and Treatment Team (CATT) or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 can help.