Updated: Apr 15, 2021
Mental health has come a long way over the past century and even more so in the last decade, especially when it comes to trauma victims. Trauma can happen after experiencing a particular event or events that caused an individual physical, emotional or psychological pain and although the experience itself can be extremely painful, the environment one is placed in afterwards can either make or break that individual. Traumatic events can cause depression, anxiety and many other mental health issues, so it's important to be mindful with how we communicate and support others through healing their wounds.
A few weeks ago, I suffered a syncope episode where I fell backwards onto concrete head and neck first, getting a nasty concussion, gashing my scalp open and needing 8 staples. The experience of fainting alone was already enough to put some weight on my shoulders but the fall following was really what made things traumatic. After I regained consciousness, I was bleeding profusely from the back of my head, paralyzed from the neck down and felt like I had a 105 degree fever. I'm forever grateful to my cousin was there for this incident and did not take the situation lightly. He immediately rushed me to the emergency room, stuck by my side until I was admitted overnight and you would think he was a professional psychologist or a "special victims unit" officer by knowing exactly what to say and how to say it. I tried my best to minimize how I was feeling because I have a bad habit of not wanting to put burdens on other people, but the more I tried to fight it, the worse I ended up feeling. Luckily, I have a great support system of people that through my recovery, respected my space and delivered the right energy to keep me in the light. Unfortunately, yin and yang exists in all aspects of life so even though I had a great support system, it was disappointing to find out how many people could say the wrong things and make the experience feel much worse. So if you know someone who has been through a traumatic encounter, here are some tips on what you can say or do to help their healing instead of hurting them more.
1. Don't downplay or minimize their experience
Saying things like "it's all in your head" or "you're making a bigger deal about this than you need to" can make a traumatic experience even more traumatizing. This is a type of gaslighting that makes the victim feel inferior and weak for being impacted by what happened to them. Not to mention it may make them a little mentally unstable as they will begin to question their experience and suppress emotions. They will most likely bottle up other traumatic events which is dangerous for mental health in the long run, causing depression and self-esteem issues. Instead, put yourself in their shoes and understand they may be feeling scared, angry or upset by the episode. Try to say things that empathize and validate their emotions such as "that experience must have been so scary" or "I can't even imagine what you're going through". This kind of dialogue offers others to witness their resilience and build self-esteem. Help the person you care about see themself as a survivor instead of someone who is overthinking.
2. Never compare their situation to yours or someone else's
When I told my best friend that I shouldn't complain about my head injury because other people have it worse, he responded to me by saying "just cause there's starving kids in the world doesn't mean you can't be hungry" and that was exactly what I needed to hear. To be fair, he is a trained psychiatrist but I know he wasn't just regurgitating quotes to make me feel better. Deep down, he always had empathy for any person who was going through a struggle which is probably why he's so great at what he does. No two people are the same and no matter how parallel certain situations may seem, no two experiences are the same. Just because you know someone who "had it worse" or because you had a similar experience does not give you the right to take away from this person's trauma or emotions. It’s incredibly selfish to assume everyone is like you or people in your world. Listen to the wounded person's story so you don't inflict damage on their self-worth. Allow them to express themselves freely without judgement so they won't suppress emotions that need to be released.
3. Send a meaningful message or don't say anything at all
This goes hand in hand with minimizing a person's experience. When someone tells you they’ve been through something traumatic (in my case, a faint leading to a severe head injury) just listen! I can’t tell you how disappointed I became when someone would say “get well, sorry you fell" or "speedy recovery” as if it was in the same category as the common cold or a sprained ankle. People can feel energy based on what you say and how you say it even through a text message. In other words, the bullshit can be smelt from a mile away, especially if you’re only doing it to save face. Reach out because you are genuinely concerned for that person, not because you think you have to. If you are willing to go the extra mile, ask them what you can do to help or what they need in that moment. Take into consideration their sensitive state and let them know you are there for them whatever help you are capable of giving. If you find yourself annoyed or feeling a certain way about reaching out to them, you were either never really close to that person or you need a serious lesson on human empathy. Best not to say anything at all until you get schooled in that subject.
4. Stop offering unsolicited suggestions
Although this usually comes from a good place, most of the time you will come off as a "know it all". Saying things like “you should...” or “you need to...” is not what someone wants to hear after they’ve been traumatized. The sufferer may already blame themselves for the situation and offering unsolicited suggestions only magnifies that blame, making them feel embarrassed for having the episode in the first place. When one of my friends reached out after the faint, they immediately began to suggest I get health tests done, change certain habits and slow down on my adventurous lifestyle. It was also quite frustrating to hear from people who don't even take their own doctor's advice, yet they were so quick to give me theirs. Your insight may be appreciated but timing is more important so give the person time and space to come to you instead of you pushing your suggestions onto them. Some people may be too proud to ask for help, but letting them know you're there if they need anything is the best way to go. My sister, for example, is a nurse and rather than listing all the things "I needed to do" she instead said, "call me if you have any questions bro!" So I did because of the safe, nonjudgemental space she created for me. Simply enough, unless someone is asking for advice, don't give it.
5. Toxic positivity and spiritual bypassing does more harm than good
The only thing worse than a minimizer is a toxic positive person. These are the people who think “good vibes” and "positive thinking" will cure any condition. These are people who, no matter how dire a situation may be, try to eliminate negative vibes through sunshine and rainbows. While optimism in dark times can be beneficial, toxic positivity rejects dealing with difficult situations in favor of a false facade. I try to stay as positive as I can when possible, yet I found my mental health draining day by day based on who I was interacting with. When a certain friend asked me how I was feeling after the injury, I responded, "I won't sugarcoat it, I'm feeling like shit". When I gave that authentic answer they countered with "you shouldn't be so negative". Then I spoke to one of my uncles later that day who asked the same thing and I gave the same answer. The only difference is he responded with "Of course man, that was a serious fall. I can't even imagine! I want you to be honest with me." Instead of trying to avoid those difficult emotions, he gave me permission to feel what I was feeling and that's exactly what a trauma victim needs. Those “negative” emotions need to be felt and dealt with honestly and released to make room for more positive thinking. Anyone who says that it needs to be sunny all the time clearly doesn't understand it's rain that creates the rainbow. Don’t bypass it just because it makes you uncomfortable.
People who have been traumatized are not looking for attention, disingenuous sympathy or anything of the sort, they just want to know you care. Don't be one of those people who says "well this is just who I am..." It's hypocritical to think a trauma victim needs to change their way of thinking when you aren't willing to do so yourself. It's also narcissistic to take away from their experience and make it about you whether that's comparing yourself or dismissing their emotions for your own comfort. Remember, this is someone you care about and in order to help them heal you have to let them them know you have their back. I shared with many people how I thought this could have been a life or death situation (since brain injuries are no joke) and how scared I was to even sleep not knowing if I could slip into a coma. I'm learning to let go of the people who quickly dismissed those feelings and focusing more on the people that do have my back. To quote the late, great Maya Angelou, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Make someone feel good during their healing process by giving support, not suggestions or judgement and remember, listening is the greatest gift you can give anyone.