With research suggesting that mental illness affects up to half of all autistic people at some point in their life, there will be a need, and a want, to support your colleagues in the workplace. Whether this is a team member, buddy, mentor or friend, this blog gives general advice on what I have seen to be useful when supporting an autistic person through mental illness. As someone who struggles with depression and anxiety, these are also tips that I have found to appreciate.
Do bear in mind that this list is by no means exhaustive, and that everyone is an individual with differing needs. But you know that!
Also, this blog assumes that the person is OK enough to be at work and that you are not a line manager supporting the person – though of course some of the tips may be universally applicable. Firstly, be honest and transparent with the person: if you want to support someone struggling with their mental health but aren’t quite sure how to go about this, just tell them so. Don’t sit there fretting about ‘getting it right’ (spoiler: there’s no right way). There’s honestly no shame in admitting this, and I’m sure you’ll be further respected by stating so, and asking how the person would best like to be supported. Moreover, ask the person to let you know if you are saying or doing something that is not helpful. This allows true connection to take place and starts the relationship of support from a place of true authenticity.
Too often, it’s assumed that we should all know what to say and do, but with everyone having such individual needs, this is rarely the case.
Never underestimate the power of simply being there for someone. Being consistent, showing up, and being in touch. This is literally priceless. All too often, when experiencing mental illness, most aspects of one’s life is completely out of proportion, so by being a constant in someone’s life is valued so incredibly much. And don’t try to fix the problem while being there, or by offering advice. I mean, let’s be honest; if the person experiencing such turmoil knew of a solution to eradicate their pain and suffering, the likelihood is that they would have done this by now. I appreciate it’s normal to want to solve people’s problems, and we may even think we’re good at this. But the reality is that these solutions are likely to have been tried out by the person, or they simply don’t work for them. Or they don’t want to try them, or they aren’t ready to make changes in their life. Whatever the reason/s, this needs to be respected, so do hold back from dishing out advice and solutions. (Unless asked for, of course). So as well showing up and checking in, if you are able to, and wish to, you can see if the person needs any practical support in their life. Autistic people often struggle with social communication, and as a result, may not have an adequate support system in place with a close network of friends and family. This may mean that they’re falling behind on organising their life outside of work. I know for me, this has always been the case, and someone offering to cook me a meal, do a food shop and act as a sounding board for my life admin has helped me profoundly. The person may not need or want the support, but it’s always worth checking in if you can support them on a more practical level. Working on a crisis plan at work with a colleague may be helpful, in that you can create a backup plan with the person if the situation were to worsen, and what those steps would look like. When things slip and deteriorate, it’s a lot tougher to work on such plans, yet easier to follow something that has been created with this hindsight in mind. Aspects to include may be early warning signs to look out for, as well as a list of who to contact, both at work and medically, should the plan need to be put into action. This can also be shared with an understanding line manager and those outside of work.
I’d also highlight that this doesn’t need to be a complex plan; just something which is a step-by-step guide that is easy to follow and implement, should things worsen.
While you may be supporting someone with a mental illness, do bear in mind that this isn’t the entirety of their life, and it doesn’t mean you have to talk about this all the time. Please don’t feel that the relationship needs to become completely one-sided. I appreciate that as a mentor, this may already be the case, but at the same time, please do share details about your own life and change the subject whenever it’s needed. When experiencing mental illness, there is this sense of zooming in on your own life and losing perspective on the rest of humanity, and I know I am guilty of this too. But do consider that this is not the whole reality and to keep some perspective on the situation, and what you end up focusing on when together. Moreover, do keep in mind that when you speak about the person’s mental health, this doesn’t need to be a big in-depth conversation.
Human connection in the smallest of ways is a gold mine.
In fact, you don’t even need to speak and can simply spend time connecting. As a western society, we put so much emphasis on our social connection being based around words and talking. But real connection doesn’t demand this, and also, sometimes: words just aren’t enough. No grand gestures are required either – have a quiet cup of tea together or go for a walk in nature. This can be a real respite for someone experiencing strong and overwhelming emotions. Or simply nattering about the inconsequential or what’s going on around you. Now that’s caring for someone. As well as being there for someone and not underestimating the power of listening, do set boundaries for yourself and how much of yourself you can give in supporting someone with a mental illness. This can take its toll at times, and you may even need to gain support for yourself. This is completely OK, and it can be really useful to reach out to support available from other colleagues, HR or an employee assistance helpline, should your workplace have one. Hopefully, with this being a work relationship with your colleague, there should already be clear parameters set in terms of the support being provided. If not, then this is worth readdressing if the boundaries weren’t considered and outlined at the beginning of the relationship. And also, don’t forget that you can re-evaluate and change the terms if something isn’t working well. Always do this with kindness, and let the person know that they are heard and respected, but that you need to also put your own wellbeing into the equation. Most people will mutually respect and understand this. And finally, the most important piece of advice I have is to not have any expectations around someone’s healing journey. No one, not even the person experiencing mental illness, will know what this is going to be like; and with each person’s path being their own, it’s not something that can be predicated. Time is honestly no indicator, and there will be good days, bad days, and some other types of days in-between.
The journey isn’t linear, nor plain sailing in any way, so please do respect each person’s path and simply be there for them, whatever this looks like.
Mahlia Amatina August 2023