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Helping others in times of distress

What do we do when someone needs help? Not the obvious, physical things but the emotional, mental and psychological? Situations requiring physical help e.g., reaching out to a doctor, lawyer or the police are straightforward. But what about the other ones, where we do not have the necessary resources, skills or formal training and find ourselves in a quandary? Providing psychological help without formal training can be daunting and yet it is not impossible.

I refer here to the innumerable situations where we find ourselves at the centre of what I call, ‘the cry for help.’ It could be a friend who has lost a job, a colleague grieving the loss of a loved one, or a relative who is unfortunate to be in the midst of a natural disaster, or even a stranger who you meet at the checkout counter who has a story of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Sometimes, this cry is explicit — as when your neighbour asks you for a referral for a therapist, counsellor or mental health professional. Other times, it is indirect and implicit — such as when a grieving relative asks for a recommendation for a book or a blog post to read, which can help him understand the meaning of his loss. And yet, on some occasions, it is rather dramatic— such as in behaviour that is a threat to one’s own life or another, or grossly deviant where we cannot engage with the person unless we are specially trained to do so.

The pre-requisites

The first few questions to ask, are the usually more common-sensical ones, viz. ‘is this situation an emergency — very simplistically, a threat to bodily life and safety?’ Or, ‘does this situation require the attention of a specialist?’ e.g., behaviour that is grossly out of tune with the person’s daily personality, as happens in personality disorders, and also due to medical reasons. Alternately, ‘is this situation life threatening?’ e.g., an attempt or threat of suicide or homicide. In such situations, it is imperative to reach out to appropriate emergency care responders immediately. These could be—depending on where you stay—a helpline, a social service agency, the law enforcement, the nearest hospital, or a trained professional.

Where the situation is not an emergency and direct help is sought, the best way is to guide the person to a specialist you know. Maybe, you can volunteer to join their search, and yet keep in mind that it is ultimately their responsibility and their decision of what they wish to choose. People needing help, often appreciate the presence and support, sometimes more than the actual content of help. They ask for help in many different ways — and often times, it is not direct. By just being present and being a listening ear, without offering solution, we provide more help than we imagine. 

The necessary discernment

If we sense that help is sought but not explicitly though, it may well be worthwhile to ask ourselves, ‘whose need is it?’ Is my friend seeking help OR is it my need to help him? Is my colleague wanting my inputs OR is it my wish that she be back to normal as fast as possible? Is my relative asking for support OR do I feel like being there for him? Is the stranger wanting my attention OR is my heart reaching out to her?

My own need to provide support and be there for the other—coming perhaps from good intentions—may sometimes end up harming the other. Offering support, where not asked, can make the other feel unprepared or inadequate. What people do appreciate and support is just presence — just being present to their pain, agony and suffering. Often, they need a ‘shoulder to cry on’. Can we just be present to them — without judging, counselling, advising and thus being really supportive of them? Can we make an effort to be present to them with our limited competencies and yet be supportive with the inner capacities we may have — as people needing help, find their own path and stitch their life slowly. By being with our own feelings, and grounding ourselves as much as possible, we can provide them a safe space for expression of their inner healing potential. 

Being human: being present & listening

If one was the strip off all jargon, people asking help are basically asking us to be human. One of the best service we can do, is to remember that though we are not specialists yet within us is the capacity to be human. Being human means being able to be authentic enough to respond, ‘I don’t know; I wish I had the training for it, but I don’t know how to help. What I can do is that I can listen to you as another human being. Maybe I can guide you to someone I know, or maybe we can research together to find a professional, but until you are ready, I am there for you. I am there to listen to you. Of course, I will have my own time commitments and my own life requirements, but I will take out time and be available for you, should you just wish to talk.’ Such straight talk can be difficult. And yet, the difference between hope and hopelessness can sometimes just be this reassurance that someone cares and will be there — if and when it is needed.

The verb ‘to listen’ comes from old English which meant, ‘to pay attention to’. Paying attention to someone means being alive to what they speak and also to what they don’t speak. We listen to not just the content, the words, but also the context, their body language, their feeling tone. Psychologists speak of ‘empathy’ — the ability to understand what the other feels (distinct from ‘sympathy’, where we feel what the other feels) — as the key attitude towards helping. If we can just listen — attentively and lovingly — without judgement, half of the challenge is overcome. Actual listening involves respecting the person and their views. More often than not, we listen to judge, or to respond and not to hear. If we wish to check out whether we are listening right or not, we can apply a simple test. Just paraphrase at an appropriate moment of pause, ‘I hear you say … and feel …’ If they correct us, we are not there with them, yet. If you wish to practice this, try it out — with your partner, colleague, child, or friend. If we can pay attention to someone for who they are and what they speak, we will learn a world about them, and about ourselves too.

When we listen as outlined above, and people talk, something changes inside for them — automatically. We don’t have to do any effort. Nor do they feel burdened to act upon what we tell them. In the act of being present and paying attention, the inner healing capacities are manifested, much without our awareness. Unfortunately, in our action oriented world, we often do not value the mere act of being present to the other; but just being present to someone is the best present we can ever give them — and ourselves too.


  • The views above do not take away the necessity of seeking professional help. The tips above are, however, meant for a non-trained person to become the best they can be in order to support the other person, until professional help is undertaken.

  • Readers who are interested in reading more on this topic, are advised to read Eugene Kennedy & Sara Charles’, ‘On becoming a counsellor’ and Carl Rogers, ‘On becoming a person’.

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