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Blog Short #183: What’s the Most Important Thing You Can Do To Help Somone?

Photo by Daniel Balakov, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Today, I’m going to tell you a story about how I learned what’s most important when trying to help someone.

This story came to mind during a conversation I had this weekend with my husband, who is also a psychotherapist. We were talking about various cases and people we’ve worked with, especially people who have such horrendous histories and problems that they’re sometimes difficult to reach. We were wondering if there’s anything more we could have done.

Talking about this brought up an experience I had, which is the story I will tell you today. It pertains to that question, and I think it’ll have meaning for you as it did for me.

It All Began . . .

Early in my career, after finishing graduate school, I got my first job in a community mental health center in a small, rural town in North-Central Florida.

It was early in the 1980s when community mental health was a national initiative, and these centers were popping up all around the country. They offered full mental health services, including outpatient psychotherapy, inpatient crisis intervention, and medication management.

Each center had a complete staff, including social workers, counselors, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, and psychiatrists. I was one of many outpatient therapists in this particular center.

I worked mostly in “aftercare,” which involved managing services for people who had been hospitalized for psychiatric issues. One of my responsibilities was making home visits to clients after they were discharged from the hospital and sent home.

Many of the people I visited were significantly impaired – mostly schizophrenic – but were just out there living in trailers or homes without a lot of support. Some lived with relatives, but some spent a good amount of time alone. Others lived in adult foster homes.

These folks came into the mental health center once a month or more to see the psychiatrist and get their meds. Some saw therapists for outpatient counseling, too, but many of them didn’t have the support to be able to come in often, so I went to them.

As you can imagine, I have many memorable experiences, but this one stands out because it taught me something that has stayed with me since then and pertains to the conversation my husband and I had this weekend. Here’s the story.

The Story

I visited a woman weekly for about a year. She lived with her husband in a fairly impoverished trailer park. I’ll call her Mary, and she was in her late 40s.

At first, I would just sit with her as she didn’t want to talk. I was new at this and anxious because I wanted to help but wasn’t sure what I could do that would benefit her. I asked questions to try to connect and check on how she was doing, but she responded minimally and made little eye contact. Visits lasted 45 minutes to an hour and then I would leave but come back the next week.

Over time, she began talking a little more, and I listened and asked more questions, but mostly listened.

This one particular day, I went out, and the carpet in the trailer was sopping wet. I asked what had happened – was there a leak of some sort – and she just smiled.

So I looked at her inquiringly, and she chuckled, which was the first time that had ever happened. Her emotions were usually flat and out of reach.

I asked what she was chuckling about, and she said, “I got carried away with cleaning.” I held back laughing, but she knew I was tickled and started laughing unabashedly. Then she told me the story, which was that she’d stopped taking her medication without telling anyone and had begun thinking that germs and bugs were crawling everywhere.

So, while her husband was at work, she hosed down the house. She boiled pots and pots of water, poured some on her husband’s bed, and had other pots sitting in the closets to steam the bugs away in the walls. She walked me around the house to show me where she’d set up all the pots.

The more she talked, the more she laughed and made eye contact. She was totally lucid that day and knew she’d been delusional when all of this happened. She’d resumed her meds.

I was concerned about what had happened because of possible danger but also amused by how witty and amused she was as she told me about it, which made her laugh more.

The Turning Point

After that day, when I visited Mary, she always met me with a smile and talked easily with me. She looked forward to visits, and I was able to help her keep her medication appointments. I also listened intently to the stories of her life and the many painful experiences she had growing up. We created a bond and connection.

It was one of those experiences where, after weeks of sitting with someone who appears to be absent and unaware of you, they suddenly connect.

What I learned from that experience was that the most important thing I can do to help anyone is to be present, care, listen, and be kind – and to do that consistently. Everything else is extra.

All the psychology, insights, and strategies are helpful and necessary but are secondary to that connection.

Everyone needs to feel heard, understood, and valued first. Without that, the rest is meaningless.

Seeing Mary every week and showing interest by either listening or just sitting with her made her feel less isolated and cared for, enough that she trusted me to tell me what she’d done that day. She didn’t feel alone or ignored, or maybe even devalued, which can happen for people who are diagnosed as “crazy.”

I wasn’t there to fix her or make her psychosis go away but to be a witness to her life and value her as a person. I did help her stay on her meds and get some additional needed services, but the visits became something we both looked forward to.

I’ve never forgotten those visits with Mary and many others after her.

I’ve also remembered that regardless of all the knowledge I can accrue, being present and sharing in someone’s life, struggles, and feelings is the most valuable thing I can offer, and I think that any of us can offer.

Even in the worst situations, when someone feels unreachable, offering genuine kindness and a caring presence has a positive effect, whether visible or not. It’s a way of putting good into the world and honoring each other’s value. It’s the most important thing any of us can do.

What to Take Away

Here’s what I took away from this experience that has stayed with me that I want to impart to you:

  1. Kindness and genuine empathy are more important than any other achievement because they contribute to connection They bring out the best in us and ensure our continued survival as a species.
  2. Everyone needs someone to witness their life. One of the reasons people become psychotic in solitary confinement is because there’s no one to witness their existence and no one to connect with.
  3. Listening without fixing is one of the most potent activities you can engage in. There are times when you can help problem-solve, and that’s valuable, but practice listening without having any agenda other than understanding. If you do only that, you’re helping.
  4. Put something good into the world whether you get a response or not. Every drop of good has power.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,


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