Supporting people perceiving a different reality to you protocol
When you are doing mental healthcare in the community you will frequently come across people in distress who are perceiving a different reality to you. They may be hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling or feeling the touch of something that you and/or others are not perceiving. They may have strong beliefs which they don't usually have or which you don't share.
This protocol should be used as part of the Acute mental health intervention protocol or in general day-to-day life. This protocol does not contain an in-depth discussion of Risks, as this is discussed in the acronym RAISED in the above protocol.
The most important thing to remember when supporting someone who is perceiving a different reality to you is that you should always work with their consent and avoid projecting your own ideas about what you think would 'be best' on to them. It is useful to have discussions with people you care for and spend time around as to how they would like you to respond if they are perceiving different kinds of reality. As with all types of mental health intervention, what helps one person could have the opposite affect on another.
Be aware that people who perceive different realities use a range of language to describe these experiences. A few ways that someone may understand their perceptions of reality are:
- As part of how they understand and cope with the world
- As part of who they are as a person
- As symptoms of an illness or diagnosis
- As symptoms of or developments from a physical injury
- As a result of taking medication
- As a result of taking drugs or alcohol
- As trauma responses
- As religious or spiritual experiences
- As part of a creative process
- As something distressing or upsetting, etc.
People's understanding of the realities they perceive often changes depending on their life circumstances.
Your role is to support someone cope with their reality and the emotions their experiences are causing.
How to support someone perceiving a different reality to you
You must not contradict someone's understanding of reality unless there is a direct threat to life or limb (for example, they are about to walk into a highway without realising) or you have their explicit permission to do so. Losing someone's trust will fundamentally make it impossible for you to continue supporting them effectively, and in contradicting them, always bear in mind you may yourself be experiencing a reality which is not useful to them for decision making.
You must not make assumptions about what reality someone is experiencing or how they are reacting to it. You must not use judgmental language or force or coerce someone into doing something they don't want to do unless they are at direct risk to life or limb.
It is not good practice to tell someone that what they are experiencing is not real or not happening, unless they have specifically told you in advance that they want you to do this. Instead, you should ask the person you are supporting clarifying questions to help you understand what they are perceiving and how that is making them feel. Some examples of questions you could ask are 'Can you help me understand how you are feeling?', 'It seems like that's making you feel really X, is that right?' or 'Can you describe what you're hearing?'.
If someone has asked you to contradict their experience of reality, make sure to be compassionate and understanding and don't dismiss what they are perceiving or how that is making them feel.