Asking questions is a beautiful thing, but there certainly is an art to it. Inquiries into a person’s life have the potential to do great good or cause deep wounds, and it all depends on what questions we ask and how we ask them.
When conversing with a loved one with a mental illness, there is a time to listen, a time to ask questions, and a time to speak. So, in addition to honing our sensory abilities to decipher what is appropriate in a given moment, it would do us good to think about what questions might help them to move forward to a restful shore, and what questions might just leave them treading water.
It is beneficial that you seek clarification of their issues while remaining kind and considerate to the sensitivity of the matter. Below are some general guidelines on helpful questions, but, of course, ultimately, you will need to be the filter on your own mouth.
Don’t Ask Why
To ask, “why did you do that?” or “why do you feel that way?” carries a harsh, detached, and accusatory connotation that only twists the dagger in a sufferer’s confusion.
It’s not that questions beginning with a why are inherently bad, but, more often than not, such inquiries are fruitless for a person with depression. We don’t know why we feel the way we do. If we did, we’d fix it. Why questions assume that there is a tangible reason for mental illness, and while often depression and anxiety are circumstantial, just as often they are not, so I think it’s best to make it a general rule to avoid the pointlessly prodding questions of why.
Don’t Ask Who
Who questions are equally futile. Depression, anxiety, really any kind of mental illness should never turn into a blame game. Yes, there are likely things that the person has or has not done that has worsened their condition, and yes, often, they are a victim of some injustice done against them. But asking your loved one who questions won’t get either of you very far. They’ll likely slip into a self-blaming hatred or seethe with unhealthy bitterness while you grow in frustration at their lack of progress.
Asking who in the dark of depression only matters in the effort to forgive past wrongs so that the individual can live freely of self-destructing bitterness and seek proper healing.
Do Ask When
The word when is a great way to start a conversation. “When did you start feeling like this?” for example is an open-ended and gentle approach to seeking clarification. Additionally, knowing when the issues started for the person can help to identify the severity of the condition, and help to clarify how you can best support them in the future. Speaking of the future, another good question is “When can I check in with you again?” It’s good to try and be a consistently open resource.
In general, when questions are non-intimidating and therefore have great potential to open up meaningful dialogue.
Do Ask What
“What can I do to help you?” is a positive and specific way of making yourself available. You will be giving them the proper control while investing personally and proactively in their recovery. “What steps toward healing have you taken thus far?” is also a helpful question as it allows you to have a better understanding of where in their journey they are at. Such a question can also conjure answers that will help you celebrate their little victories with them, a healthy and positive practice.
Do Ask How
“How long have you been feeling like this?” is a fantastic question that coincides with the benefits of when questions. “How do you feel right now?” is another helpful gateway; and “How can I help?” is a kind way to offer support.
Another good how question that could open up helpful dialogue is “how do you usually cope when you’re struggling internally?” This question has the potential to conjure difficult answers as human beings are notorious for coping unhealthily with internal issues. However, learning how to cope appropriately is something everyone should learn eventually. You asking the question could help them to identify what they do that is positive, and what they do that is destructive.
Do Ask Do
While often, asking unrestricted questions is best, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to be blunt at times. Despite common belief, there is likely a pining deep in the shadows of your loved ones desire for you to ask them the tough questions. “Do you struggle with suicidal thoughts?” for instance is an inquiry that professionals have determined is better asked straight-forwardly than to be shied away from.
If the person readily admits to depression, you could also ask, “Do you struggle with anxiety as well?” or the other way around. It’s not always needlessly prodding to be upfront, and in fact, it’s often helpful for each of you to trudge through some choice tough questions.
After listening intently, you could ask, “Do you mind if I share a bit of my story?” If you can relate to depression or anxiety, feel free to share with them. Not that any two cases are the same, but affirming your loved ones are not alone can go a long way in establishing a healthy relationship.
That said, always be considerate and understand that the timing in which they choose to share their story is theirs alone to manage.
Any type of question can be manipulated to be offensive or hurtfully prodding, so use your best judgement. The ultimate goals are to seek clarification in a kind and considerate way and guide the individual through beneficial thought by the wise use of open-ended, non-intimidating, and non-accusatory questions.
Basically, do ask questions, but do ask responsibly.
What are some good questions that you’ve found helpful?