Caregiving & Self-Care

A practical workshop.

Clarrise Ng, Founder

18 January 2020


On a lovely Saturday afternoon, about 14 participants and 6 Master’s in Counselling students from Monash University came together to think and talk about mindfulness, mental health, self-care, suicide prevention, and listening skills. We called it a practical workshop. Why? Every so often, we think about self-care and look at it as an individual pursuit. It can also seem quite impractical and frivolous, especially if marketing ads for luxury items have anything to do with it. It is true that self-care does involve focusing on our own individual needs, to take care of oneself is a skill and necessity. However, we wanted to contextualize self-care in situations where your self-care comes while you are giving care to another person. 

There are many instances where you might need practical skills to be able to deal with the situation at hand. Everyone is a caregiver in some way — you may be a friend, parent, sibling, coworker, manager, or even a stranger. At many points in our lives, we are called to give care to someone other than ourselves. When it comes to mental healthcare, caregiving takes on a whole new dimension. The stakes are the state of someone’s mental wellbeing, their life even. We realize that suicide is prevalent in our communities, and caring for someone who may be thinking of taking their own life is challenging. Thus this workshop was designed with all these criteria in mind — to give people an opportunity to practice caregiving and self-care skills so when the need arises, we’d be read, or at least readier than if we had never done anything like that before. 

“How do you care for yourself while caring for someone else?”

The day began with a hard look at reality. Let’s face it — suicide happens. It happens all too often, and often involves those we love and care about. Unfortunately, many of us live by myths instead of facts about suicide, and the resulting fear and confusion is greatly unhelpful for all those involved. In the workshop, we learned that suicidal ideation may arise from many different situations; no single trigger may cause a person to want to take their own life. More often than not however, it is a desire to stop living in pain that is unbearable, so much so that death seems to be more reasonable of an option. However, merely dismissing suicide as “unreasonable”, “selfish”, or “attention-seeking” is not helpful. Neither is threatening to leave, ignore, or brush off a plea for help effective nor comforting to the person who may be considering suicide. 

Instead, we learn to recognize signs of suicidal ideation and to give space to the person to communicate what they are going through. For one, it is okay to talk about suicide — you are not “putting the idea in somebody’s head”. It is vital that one listens carefully and takes note of any active plans and steps taken to carry out the idea and bring it to fruition. If there are concrete and active plans, it is vital that a healthcare provider or emergency service is contacted to protect the person in crisis immediately. If there are no concrete or active plans, but ideas about suicide still prevail, offer to connect this person to a mental healthcare professional. Giving care with the lens of suicide prevention can be equivalent to listening well, connecting someone to the help they need, and walking with them along the way. At the same time, caring for yourself means making sure that you are honest about your own limitations and capabilities. For one, you may not be a mental healthcare professional, nor would you usually have the ability to protect someone who is in crisis 24/7. However, you may be able to reach out for help and equip yourself with the knowledge of who to contact and where to go for help. You too, need help when you’re trying to help another person.

Giving care with the lens of suicide prevention can be equivalent to listening well, connecting someone to the help they need, and walking with them along the way. At the same time, caring for yourself means making sure that you are honest about your own limitations and capabilities.

The most interactive part of the workshop involved a simulation in pairs and groups, where participants were tasked with a situation in which they would have to assist someone who is thinking of taking their own life, in mental distress, or struggling with a problem one way or another. Participants were able to practice active listening skills while employing mindfulness and empathy in their conversations. It was also important to practice knowing what signs to look out for, how to navigate the conversation and not get lost in the details, try to problem-solve, or jump to conclusions. The simulations helped to make hypothetical situations seem real. It is real when there is a heavy silence between someone saying “I want to die”, and you thinking about how you should respond. It is real when someone says “I don’t know what to do”, and you really want this person to get help. It is real when someone says “I don’t care anymore”, and you’re at your wits end.

It was fitting then, that we finished with a mindfulness exercise. It was a good way to ground ourselves in the present after a long afternoon of conversation and thought. There was also a very useful Q&A session at the end of the workshop. Participants asked good questions including on what the differences were between counsellors and clinical psychologists in Malaysia (read about that here). Some also asked about where to find therapy, how to do so, and what to expect in terms of charges and typical procedures (you can also read about that here). We also related situations where we realized we had overstepped our own boundaries and abilities with regards to giving care to someone, or situations where we felt hesitant or unsure about assisting someone. Ultimately, it was also about being honest with ourselves — about what we know, what we don’t know, what we can do, and what we don’t want to do. We can and do make a difference to the people around us. Caregiving begins with self-care, but it certainly doesn’t end there.