When someone is going through a rough patch it can be hard to know what to do for them. So often we'll do nothing. But small acts of kindness can make a big difference. Life Matters listeners share their remarkable stories.

A couple of years ago Rebecca Lewis was told that her mother had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease. 'I can't quite describe the emptiness that came,' she says.

Lewis felt incredibly alone. 'Sydney can be a pretty cold, dark place,' she says.

'I was walking towards the Harbour Bridge—quite shamelessly crying—and this gentleman who was walking with his daughter, stopped me and said, "What's going on?'''

Lewis told them that her mother was sick.

"Every little act of kindness creates that feeling of belonging". DR STAN STEINDL

'Without even thinking, he gave me the biggest bear hug of my life,' she says. His daughter followed her dad's gesture—wrapping her arms around Lewis' legs and squeezing them tightly.

'It gave me a sense of hope, when everything seemed so hopeless,' says Lewis, who is now the campaign director of RUOK?—a national day that encourages people to start caring conversations with people around them.

Despite the support of loving family members and friends, Lewis says the act of kindness from a stranger truly stayed with her.

Tell us about a little act of kindness that made a difference to you.

'We can often feel cut off from the community, or have a sense that nobody cares,' says Dr Stan Steindl, a clinical psychologist and adjunct lecturer at University of Queensland. Kindness or altruistic acts from others can buck up against the feeling of isolation.

'It's the antidote that you're not alone,' he says. 'Every little act of kindness creates that feeling of belonging, or being a part of the community.'

According to Lewis, people often construct barriers in their own minds that stop them reaching out and helping those in need.

'One of the greatest pressures that we put on ourselves is that we need to fix someone else's problem,' she says. As such, we can feel powerless to help when we can't remove the hurt, or cure someone's illness.

'We often want to make a gesture that brings us a "movie moment"—where we're going to hear the music swell in the background and it's going to get through to somebody,' says Claire Kelly, manager of youth programs at Mental Health First Aid. 'The truth is that a lot of the time, it won't.'

Instead, Kelly and Lewis argue that we should suppress our urge to 'fix the problem' and instead focus on being there and showing that you care.

'When people hear consistent messages: "You do matter. You do have the right to ask for help. It is okay to have someone listen to you", over time, it becomes a message that sinks in,' says Kelly.

Lewis agrees. 'Just being as non-judgemental and as compassionate as possible can go a long way to helping someone,' she says.

To mark the beginning of Mental As, Life Matters listeners shared their experiences of not-so-little acts of kindness.

Fran's story .....

It was over 40 years ago now, but I've never forgotten her. I was living in a family violence situation, and very cut off from my community—as you often are in those situations. One morning, I went into our local shop, and I didn't know anybody who worked there. When I went to pay up at the counter, the lady who was serving just looked at me. There was no one else around and she just said, 'You know you don't have to stay'. I had no idea that anybody knew what was going on for me. I had no idea it was visible to anybody. But obviously it was. She just smiled at me and she didn't say anything else. I went home and thought about it. And just the fact that somebody recognised it, for some reason, made a huge difference to me. I left within a week. It just broke something in me that was clenched. I've always remembered her; she's got a very special part in my heart. I went on to have a very different life.

Andrew's Story ....

I've been through problems at various stages in my life. I think it's hard because I'm a middle aged man and I was brought up to be tough and not to show anything. One of the nicest things that I received—when I did let things out to my friends—was a hand-written card in the mail, saying how important I was. Every now and then when I look through stuff and I find the card, it just reminds me that even though you can be caught up with your own thoughts and think nobody cares or notices or you're not worth much—when you receive a card like that it really makes you look beyond yourself, out to your wider world, to the friends that really do appreciate you.

Jenny's Story ...

I'm an elderly lady, 83, and I'm not terribly mobile. I walk with a stick, but I do try to do my own shopping. I'd gone to get some milk one morning and once I got to the store I realised that I didn't have quite enough money. So I turned around and starting walking away. But then I heard a voice: 'Lady! Lady!' Here was a young man in his outdoor work clothes, carrying a bottle of milk. And he said 'Here's your bottle of milk, lady'.

Stephanie's Story ...

It was 60-plus years ago, when I was six years old. It was my first day at school and I was feeling very lost and lonely. A little girl came up to me and took my hat to hang on the hook. She had a big lovely smile.

Lisa's Story ...

I've had some battles over the years, my head is not always kind to me. But for the past almost 18 years there has been one person who with a little smile, hug or a giggle, will remind me that there is a light at the the end of the tunnel—my gorgeous son.

Kate's Story ...

I was walking at my local beach one morning and a man walked towards me. I smiled and said hello. Out poured his story. I was the first person he had spoken to in three days. I could sense he was disheartened and upset. He asked if there was a phone box nearby, as he needed to call his family. I took him to the nearby store and waited while he made a call. Afterwards, we said goodbye and all the best. I had only told him that I was nurse at a doctor's surgery and my name was Kate. About three months later I received a message at work to say a man had called looking for a nurse called Kate. 'You may not remember me Kate, you helped me on the beach one day, took me to the phone. You saved my life that day. I was about to end my life. Thank you.' He did not leave his name.

Jo's Story ...

I was utterly distraught because my husband had left me. An old friend heard me out—as I ranted and raved—then he simply said 'I love you'. It had never occurred to me before that my friends could love me, with warmth and concern. It made such a difference and I've never forgotten it.

Alanna's Story ...

My mother passed away at a young age, and not long after this my house was burgled. They stole her wedding rings and other heirlooms. I felt terribly bereft and responsible that I had not ensured the safe keeping of her jewellery to pass on to her granddaughter. The very next week, the woman I sponsor in Afghanistan sent a gift of a bracelet back to Australia. In it was a message thanking me for changing her life through my sponsorship. I was overwhelmed at the kindness shown by a woman who has so little—to give me so much. Her kindness in my time of sadness was immeasurable and put into context my own troubles.

Alita's Story ...

Thirty-odd years ago, we were stuck in a traffic jam on the Burwood Highway. It was hot and we had the windows down. Suddenly a soft drink truck pulled up next to us. My brother and I gazed at it longingly with thirst. Just then, we saw the driver get out. He went to the back of the truck, took two bottles out, and walked over to our car. He handed them to our dad saying, 'Here you go, mate. For your kids'. Whoever you are, sir, I've never forgotten you. thank you.


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