Illness isn’t something we like to talk about much, likely because we want to avoid becoming ill ourselves at all costs (as though the words themselves might be contagious!). Yet for some 15 million + people in the UK managing chronic illnesses , avoiding talking about it won’t make the problem disappear. During this surreal last year where worries about the superbug abound, illness is suddenly something we’re talking about in our offices, at home, even in the school playground.
Now feels more important than ever to be having these conversations. Rather than offer unsolicited advice or sorry’s though, there are several ways we can support rather than stigmatise those managing chronic health conditions - here’s how:
Don’t play Doctor
Often our good intentions, that is, wanting to rush in and help someone who is suffering, are -at best- a little misguided and -at worst- damaging to our relationships. We can feel helpless trying to offer support on something we may know little about, but it’s worth remembering that your friend/colleague/spouse managing the condition has likely already done their research on the subject. Links to Buzzfeed articles, claiming that kale can help heal their condition, are likely to just stress them out and/or make them feel responsible for their poor health, which ironically is not conducive to healing.
If, and it really is a big if, you’ve come across something you’re confident will be useful for them, mention it in a considerate way - that means start by asking if it’s something they’re open to/willing to discuss… Try "I’ve been doing some reading around your condition and come across something that I think may be helpful, is that something you are open to talking about at the moment?” instead of “I read about a young woman who cured her lupus through a keto diet, have you tried that?”. A point that leads seamlessly onto our next tip…
Ask what you can do to help (and do it)
Seeing as you’re *not* their doctor, the good news is you’re not expected to know what they need off-the-bat. You can find out, as if by magic, simply by asking. Your knee-jerk reaction may be to offer up a sweet "sorry’" but sorry’s aren’t really going to help the person at the receiving end. It’s far more useful to ask what practical support they may need. Do they need help getting their shopping? Or maybe they want help constructing an email to their boss? Could you offer to drive them to their doctor’s appointment?
Asking what they need and following through with practical support, means that the person feels less alone in their management of the issue. There is, of course, no need to over-commit yourself. If you don’t have time don’t offer to get their shopping, offer options for practical support that are manageable for you too - whether that’s just making a cuppa and being a shoulder to cry on.
Help them to get the support they need
If there's something that they ask for that you’re not able to support them with, you can always help to find out where they can get the support they need. As there is much stigma surrounding chronic illness, those who are unwell are more likely to experience social isolation and exclusion which make accessing support more challenging. Having supportive friends, family and colleagues who encourage them to make a doctor’s appointment, or join a support group, might make a world of difference!
Make space for them to show up as they are
Spaces that can seem gentle enough when we’re well - a restaurant, a countryside meander, drinks with friends - may, at times, feel overwhelming to those battling illness. Something a person may love to do when they’re well; such as getting dressed up and going out for dinner, may feel unattainable to them when they’re experiencing a flare-up of their illness. That may be because their energy is low, but they may also experience low confidence in going to these places without looking or feeling a certain way. In the latter instance, it’s important to let them know they’re fine to be exactly how they are in your company, without pressure or expectation they ‘perform’ a social role. Allowing your friend to show a more vulnerable side is a great way to build a deeper connection in your relationship too.
Have a check-in, not a check-up
This is another case of our best intentions going awry, phrases an otherwise healthy person getting over a bout of flu, wouldn’t bat an eyelid at, can be jarring for those with chronic illness: ‘I hope you feel better soon’, ‘We’ll catch up when you’re feeling better’, or even seemingly innocent questions ‘Are you feeling any better yet?’ can make us feel misunderstood. There may be times where we feel better and times where we feel worse, but waiting until we feel ‘better’ before engaging, can seem like you’re writing us off altogether, as this elusive ‘better’ may never really arrive. Equally, checking in on how someone is doing is distinct from checking up on their health - you don’t need to ask endless questions about how they’re managing their illness to be supportive. A simple ‘How are you today?’ works fine and allows the person to open up about their illness if they choose to. Chances are, if you follow all of our other tips, the person will want to confide in you anyway!
Key takeaway: We know, navigating conversations where we feel vulnerable, or acknowledge the other person may be feeling so, can be uncomfortable (particularly if we’re not used to it) - but doing so is an important part of what it means to sustain meaningful relationships with others, so if you’re finding it tricky, try this guide to get things off the ground.
Department of Health Report (2012). Long-term conditions compendium of information: 3rd edition.