Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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How to Help Someone

 Helping Someone in Distress

  1. The Distressed Individual
  2. The Conversation and Referral 

A friend, colleague, or family member may appear to be in distress. You may want to help but you may be hesitant for a number of reasons, including: “I don’t know what to do or what to say”.

This course is designed to give you the knowledge and the confidence to have the conversation with someone who may be struggling with personal issues and to refer them to appropriate sources of help.

Lesson 1: The Distressed Individual

1. Recognizing signs of distress

Often it is obvious that someone is in distress, but sometimes it is subtle. 

Here are some common signs that someone may be experiencing some form of personal issue:

  • Sudden changes in behavior or personality
  • Rapid changes in mood
  • Very down, lethargic
  • Excessively nervous, agitated and jumpy
  • Overly suspicious, hostile or defensive
  • Erratic or uncharacteristic behavior
  • Argumentative
  • Blames others for problems
  • Personal appearance deteriorates
  • Excessive weight gain or loss
  • Smells of alcohol
  • Excessive use of alcohol or drugs
  • Accident prone
  • Often ill and/or absent from work
  • Taking unnecessary chances
  • Obsessive about responsibilities
  • Decrease in work performance, enthusiasm, interest and/or confidence

To learn more about what you may see when someone may be having a problem with alcohol, visit www.albertalawyersassist.ca 

To learn more about how personal difficulties may show up in the workplace, visit the Canadian Mental Health Association website.

Potential Barriers to Getting Involved

Sometimes we have fears, feelings and beliefs that prevent us from approaching a person who may be in distress:

  • “It’s not my business”
  • “I need to respect their privacy”
  • “I would be crossing a boundary”
  • “I don’t want to make them feel worse”
  • “I don’t know what to do or say”
  • “Someone else will say something”
2. Responding to Potential Barriers

If you find yourself thinking these thoughts, please consider:

  • While it feels complex, reaching out is a very simple act of human kindness: trust yourself.
  • The potential upside to expressing concern and offering help is significant. Basic happiness, a career, and even a life might be saved.
  • It is possible no one else will say anything.
  • Would you be offended if someone respectfully expressed concern for you and offered help?
3. A Consideration for Lawyers

If you are a lawyer or articling student, you are governed by the legal profession’s Code of Conduct.

You are encouraged to review section 7.1-3 and the related commentary regarding a lawyer’s duty to report the misconduct of another lawyer.

While reporting obligations are limited (even more so when you are trying to help another lawyer seek help) – if concerns about ethical obligations that may exist under the Code are causing you to hesitate in reaching out to a colleague, make a confidential call to Assist’s Executive Director (587-779-7205) to work it through. 

Also, the Law Society of Alberta’s Practice Advisors provide confidential advice when considering if a section of the Code is applicable to the particular circumstances.

4. The “Inside” View

The distressed person may be:

  • Scared
  • Embarrassed
  • Ashamed
  • Denying or ignoring the issue
  • Feeling isolated
  • Unaware of changes in their own behavior
  • Confused and not knowing what to do or who to talk to

These and other reasons may prevent them from seeking help.

Stigma can be overwhelming.

According to the most extensive study of lawyer mental health and addiction, the two most common reasons that lawyers do not seek treatment are not wanting others to find out that they needed help and concerns regarding privacy or confidentiality.

Stigma remains a substantial issue in the legal community.

5. Did You Know?

In addition to helping individuals in distress, Assist helps individuals and organizations help others who may be in distress.

You are not alone when reaching out to help someone else. Call Assist and receive advice and coaching on dealing with a distressed friend, colleague, or family member. 

If initial prompting to seek help has been unsuccessful and an individual is in severe distress, a planned intervention involving professional help, colleagues, peers, family members, or others may be warranted. The professionals at Assist can help you and other concerned parties make that determination.

If you are in a situation where an individual is threatening to harm themselves or others, call 911.

6. Deciding to Reach Out

If you decide to reach out to an individual who appears to be in distress, remember that you can contact Assist’s professional counsellors for support. In some situations, you can also access peer support to talk with another lawyer who has reached out to someone in distress or had a similar experience. 

Continue to Lesson 2: The Conversation and Referral to learn how.

Lesson 2: The Conversation and Referral

1. Before You Take Action

Once you make the decision that you want to reach out, it is important to prepare for the conversation and have current information regarding referral sources. You must also prepare yourself for the possible reactions the distressed person may have.

What to do? What to say? What might happen?

Proceed through this lesson to answer these critical questions and feel confident in reaching out to help.

2. Preparing Yourself

Before you take any steps, there is one important preliminary consideration: you must assess how you are feeling. It may not be the time to reach out to help someone else if you are in the middle of a work or personal crisis yourself.

Free yourself of any judgments, assessments, or diagnoses you may have and enter the interaction as a compassionate observer.

Know what the goal of your conversation is. Is it to express concern and encourage the person to seek help?

Be clear with yourself about your role. You are there to express concern and be a catalyst. You are not a medical professional or a saviour. You are simply trying to help a fellow human being who may be in distress.

Have Assist's professional counselling services phone number, 1-877-498-6898, and website, lawyersassist.ca, handy. Make help readily available."

3. The Basics of the Conversation

Be discreet and respect privacy. You can be in a public space, but it is not a public conversation.

Do not label (i.e. “You are depressed” or “You are an alcoholic”).

Instead, describe observations (i.e. “I noticed you seem quiet and withdrawn lately” or “I noticed you were slurring your words and smelled of alcohol”).

Express concern for the individual and tell them why you are concerned.

Make a respectful request for action: “Please consider making a call to Assist (or other helping resource) – here is the number…”

4. Workplace Considerations

The basics still apply. The workplace can present unique challenges if job performance or behavior has deteriorated. 

Employers also have business priorities that must be managed.

  • Apply the “rule-it-out” rule – is some form of distress (mental, emotional, substance abuse, etc.) contributing to the performance issue?
  • Then, go through the Basics (see above).
  • If circumstances warrant, insist upon a professional health assessment.
5. Managing the Distressed Employee

Is some form of distress contributing to the performance issue?

  • If yes, then ask: What can you, as employer, do to support the individual’s recovery and return to positive performance? From there, generate a tailored response (consider any legal duty to accommodate). 
  • If no, the situation becomes a pure performance management issue.

To learn more about managing the distressed employee, check out the Forbes Employer’s Handbook.

6. Family Considerations

Emotions can run much higher in a family situation and the impact of your family member’s behavior flowing from their distress may have a bigger impact on you and others in the family.

  • Be prepared for an emotional reaction from the family member in distress and from yourself. Try to stay calm and bring the conversation back to the basics.
  • In addition to describing your observations of your family member, also describe (without blame or judgment) the impact that their distress and resulting behavior is having on you and the family. This may provide added motivation for action.
  • Be solution focused and discuss what they and “we” need to do to improve the situation.
7. Possible Reactions: Emotional

The individual may react to your reaching out in many ways, including:

  • An outpouring of emotion: This represents an excellent opportunity, in all circumstances, to first listen (let it all come out), acknowledge and validate the emotion, and help the person access the appropriate helping resources. Follow up. Continue to support.
8. Possible Reactions: “I’m Fine”

The polite “Thank you, I am fine” or the person may deny any issue exists. Your response to either of these reactions may vary depending on the circumstances:

  • If it is a friend or colleague – you may have done all you can do at that point. A seed for future action may have been planted. Keep observing and check back in.
  • If it is a family member or an employment situation, it may not be OK to leave it as is for now. Consider seeking professional advice on next steps.
9. Possible Reactions: Self Destructive

 In rare circumstances the individual may threaten harm to self or others:

  • Reassure and express concern about the mood/sentiment.
  • Strongly recommend immediate professional help.
  • Offer to call for assistance.
  • Ensure safe transportation.
  • If needed, call for professional crisis help through Assist or call 911. 
10. Possible Reactions: Destructive

Destructive behavior (threatening, menacing, aggressive):

  • Firmly ask the individual to stop the destructive behavior.
  • Stay calm and indicate security or police will be called.
  • Limit escalation by speaking calmly and focusing on process, i.e. “Please sit down so we can talk about how I can help you”.
  • Point out the downside of behavior and express value they have to you as a friend, colleague, employee, etc.
  • Call 911 if the situation does not calm down.
11. Available Resources

Call Assist’s professional counselling services office to learn what professional services are available to you at 1-877-498-6898, and call Assist’s office to learn about peer support and other programs at 1-877-737-5508.

Check out other resources: www.albertalawyersassist.ca

12. Resource Acknowledgements

A number of resources were consulted* in the preparation of this learning module, including and with thanks to:

  • Dr. Brian Forbes, Forbes Psychological Services
  • The Canadian Mental Health Association website
  • The Legal Education Society of Alberta

*Assist is entirely responsible for the accuracy and validity of the information offered in this learning module.