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Enhancing Mental Health Help Seekers' Capacity: The Vital Role of Help Providers

There is a lot that we as help providers can do to enhance mental health seekers personal capacity. This includes being clear on our role, recognising the innate capacity that help seekers have, and understanding how to build hope. 

Too often we can fall into the pitfall of thinking we need to have all the answers and take responsibility for the outcomes of the help seeker who has come to see us.   We can unwittingly create our own false narratives about people’s lives and the reasons for how things are and how they came to be and how they will continue to stay the same or get worse unless our recommendations are followed.  This puts a lot of pressure on us to have the ‘right answers’ that then trump the person’s understanding of themselves.

Instead, we can see our job as helping the person discover their capacity. Having an unwavering belief that people have an innate capacity to learn and grow and change helps us persevere even when we feel stuck, or it looks like the help seeker is stuck.

We can help change our mental health service culture to one that is about looking deeper than arbitrary diagnostic labels and instead privileging the view of the person, by assuming the existence of and asking about their nuanced and multifaceted interpretations.

We could be infinitely curious about the unique, never to be repeated human in front of us and their take on their individual experience.  When we see people as ACT therapist Kelly Wilson recommends, as ‘sunsets to be appreciated, rather than maths problems to be solved” we transform our interactions.

Instead of seeing someone as being hard to engage and a reflection on the capacity of the person or a threat to our competence, we can embrace this as a challenge to learn new ways for us to be engaging.

We can take this to mean we simply haven’t found the way yet.  Maybe we could start by listening more deeply and becoming more comfortable with silence. We can remain hopeful about our capacity to make heart to hear connections and be comfortable with not knowing and sit with uncertainty.

Hope is the mechanism that helps us get to where we want to go.  We remain motivated to continue despite inevitable obstacles and setbacks.  Without hope we give up.

30 years ago hope theory was conceptualised by Rick Snyder as the result of a dynamic interaction between pathways and agency thinking.  The 3 key aspects required for hope to be present according to Snyder are 1) identifying something you want to be different and a dynamic interaction between 2) pathways thinking and 3) agency thinking.

Pathways thinking, sometimes referred to as ‘the way’, is coming up with multiple options that can be considered and strategies that can be implemented to address an identified problem and any obstacles that arise. 

Help providers usually feel more confident providing help seekers support with pathways.  We need to be careful that any options are cocreated and suitable to the person’s unique situation not our personal favourites.

Agency thinking sometimes referred to as ‘the will’, is the determination to make a change and belief in your capacity to make it happen. Help providers can strengthen agency thinking by telling stories, showing videos or giving links to articles about people in similar situations who have made a change or maybe with permission introducing people to each other.

We can ask the person to reflect on times they have overcome difficult situations and the strengths they used to do so.  We can enquire about what is important to them and how they want to show up while they are pursuing this change.  We can find out about their go to and untapped external resources and supports. These are just some of the ways to build hope.

Snyder developed scales to measure hope as a trait which is something a person either permanently has or they don’t have. He also had a scale to measure hope as a state that anyone could have sometimes and not at other times. 

Regardless of which was measured, having hope is essential to making a change.  If you don’t believe you have what it takes to change, it seems impossible, so it seems pointless to try.  It doesn’t matter if there are 100 different options and strategies that can be applied to a situation, if you don’t believe you can do it, there might as well be none.

Recently researchers[i] from the University of Melbourne revisited hope theory and identified it was missing some contextual elements.  People don’t define what they want to change and the pathways and agency thinking required in isolation. Instead, this is co-constructed with others in social situations. They call these added interpersonal aspects and intrapersonal aspects, ‘Wepower’ and ‘Whypower’.

As well-known disruptive thinker and consultant to the Mind-Life project, Helen Glover says during the podcast  ‘On Personal Capacity’, “We’ve created the misery industry, that says people don’t have capacity to solve their own problems and at first sign of distress seek out a help provider.”[ii] 

As help providers, individually and collectively we can start to change this by giving help seekers a new experience when they encounter us, where we demonstrate unwavering belief in their capacity to make decisions to meet their needs and create the life they want.  We can support help seekers uncover and reconnect with their innate capacity to make wise decisions and learn and grow and change within their own communities without automatically reaching out to a help provider. 

Hungry for more thoughts on personal capacity?

Listen to this podcast episode...


[i] “A New Hope” for Positive Psychology: A Dynamic Systems Reconceptualization of Hope Theory  

[ii] Mind-life Mayhem Ppodcast ‘On Personal Capacity’ 




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