This was written by Emma is a psychologist in New Zealand who works using the Solution Focused approach. She has worked in mental health, education, and suicide postvention and is currently employed by New Zealand Police within the family harm team.
In her spare time, Emma delivers free suicide prevention workshops to the general public, as well as online learning via Zoom.
Let me begin by acknowledging that 2020 has been a tough year for everyone. That said, let’s talk about how to help each other get through the changes brought by this virus…..
People need to feel heard and understood. It is important that we acknowledge what the situation is like for them, without judgment, and communicate that we understand how things are for them.
Examples of statements or questions that convey empathy include:
- It sounds like things have been really stressful for you?
- It must be exhausting for you to have to face this every day?
- It sounds like it’s been a real struggle for you.
- This sounds really tough for everyone.
Listen for strengths
The shift to a helpful conversation begins with thinking positively about the person, and then conveying this attitude to them. People need to feel that their problems and difficulties are taken seriously. We can communicate a belief in the person’s strengths, and in the possibility that they can make things different. This step can naturally follow some of the things we say to express empathy. For example, we could follow up a statement like “this sounds like a really difficult situation for you” with “how do you keep going – what has helped you adapt to this?” Language is powerful – asking “how have you adapted” implies a belief that the person HAS managed to adapt, even in some small way, and we are drawing attention to that success, rather than a focus on how difficult the situation is.
Examples of useful questions include:
- How have you managed to stop things getting worse?
- How do you keep going despite this difficult situation?
- What strengths do you have that help you do that?
Identify hopes and preferred futures
A critical goal of the conversation is to identify the person’s positive goals, hopes and dreams, and to explore with them how they can achieve these.
Examples of questions include:
- If you woke up tomorrow and life was exactly how you would like it to be, what would be happening? (Time should be given for the person to answer in significant detail.)
- How will things be different when you are on top of all your problems?
- What will be a sign to you that things have begun to improve?
People need to be encouraged to identify exceptions in their lives – times when things are better. For example, in situations where violence is a problem, we need to identify the times when people are getting on better, enjoying each other’s company, and managing conflict.
This deliberate shift away from focusing on problems, and instead looking for positive times, can generate solutions. It also communicates respect. For example:
- You were saying that the weekdays are the worst for you… that you feel more stressed out … so things are a little better for you during the weekend?
- In what ways are things different for you then? What do other people notice? What else?” The more concrete and meaningful the detail to the person, the more likely it is to lead to positive change.
- When over the last few months has the (drinking/violence/drug use) reduced, even a little bit? How did you manage to achieve that?
- What did you do that made a difference? What difference did it make when you did that instead?
This shift of focus from problems to exceptions can generate solutions. Conversations that highlight a person’s strengths and resources are more productive than those that focus purely on problems.
Specific questions regarding COVID-19 and lockdown
The current situation with COVID-19 and lockdown presents specific stressors for individuals and families. These include:
- Loss of employment.
- Reduced income.
- Loss of social contact.
- Restricted activity.
- Conflict in the home.
- Fear of contracting the virus.
- Uncertainty about the future.
- Perceived loss of control.
Check in with people that they feel prepared, both practically in terms of having enough food and supplies, as well as mentally. Many people will be struggling with being relatively isolated, and with very limited freedom.
They may be worried about managing boredom, loneliness, or the pressure of being stuck at home with family members, and the possibility of conflict or even violence.
There is also an increased risk of suicidal thinking at this time, and this can be assessed with a simple scaling question e.g., on a scale of 0 to 10 where you 0 is you don’t think you will be able to get through this, and 10 is you are completely confident that you will manage lockdown with ease, where are you on that scale? If someone responds with a low number, we can explore this in more detail and respond as needed.
The following is an unusual question to ask them that may help them get through the coming weeks or months….
“Imagine that the lockdown period has ended. Tomorrow you are going to be interviewed by a local newspaper, where you will be talking about how you have successfully managed to get through the lockdown, and how you have surprised yourself with how well you coped.
What will you be saying about how you made it through, and what strengths and resources you called on that were helpful to you and your family??”
While this seems like a very strange type of question, there is strong evidence and neuroscience supporting this style of questioning in helping people access possible solutions that they cannot identify with a traditional style of questions. In answering this, they have basically written their own Lockdown Survival Plan!!
If people are struggling to cope, and cannot identify coping strategies, we can make some suggestions – ensure these come across as suggestions not directives.
In general, advice around wellbeing should be holistic, and take into account a person’s preferences and values, as well as covering off the key domains of physical wellbeing, family wellbeing and social connectedness, spiritual wellbeing, and mental/emotional wellbeing. Some ideas for activities include:
- Going for a walk
- Home based fitness
- Family exercising outdoors
- Reading a book or magazine
- Netflix or TV programmes of interest
- Cooking or baking a favourite food then share the recipe with friends
- Have a light-hearted cooking or baking competition at home.
- Play games such as charades or other less competitive fun games like Twister
- Learning a new hobby or skill
- Board games (perhaps not Monopoly!)
- Web based chat with friends or family members who are in a different household
- Checking in with other people to see how they are coping and sharing ideas
- Listening to music – or playing music (unless this will agitate your neighbours!)
- Indoor picnics
- Having a bath or shower
- Listen to a podcast or online guided mindfulness/relaxation
- Prayer or meditation
- Browsing the web for areas of interest
- Plan what you will do when lockdown ends or a future holiday