Mental health can be a tricky subject to navigate, especially when someone you love is struggling. Sometimes they’re suffering in silence, and other times they reach out to us for help, but we’re unsure how to respond. It can be uncomfortable, nerve-wracking, and confusing, and while there isn’t one “right” way to help them, it’s important to know what is and isn’t beneficial for most people’s mental health journey.
If you know someone facing challenges mentally or want to learn more about mental health and what you can do to recognize and support those in your community, start with the basics. Work on understanding potential warning signs of mental health problems for those who aren’t vocal about it. Avoid common words and phrases that are not particularly helpful, and learn uplifting ways to address peers, loved ones, members of your community, and even strangers in discussing mental health. These are all fundamental examples of ways to support and encourage those who are struggling.
Looking for Potential Warning Signs
For many of those experiencing mental health difficulties, outwardly expressing those feelings is not easy. This results in many individuals suffering in silence with no support and no way to cope. Ways you can notice this is when someone in your life starts acting a little off. They might be less present, mentally or emotionally, when you’re together, act flustered, or withdraw from school, work, and social interactions.
If your roommate is normally fairly attentive to her school, work, and home responsibilities, but you notice her skipping class a few times a week and letting her laundry pile up for a month, there might be a deeper issue. If your brother has been lashing out at you or his friends recently and staying home on the weekends, he may need your support.
Starting this conversation can be scary at first, but the first step in doing this can simply be saying, “hey is something wrong?” or “what’s up? you’ve been acting different lately.” Often, this is the first time that anyone has even asked about these behaviors. It only takes one person to listen and understand for things to begin looking up; even if you find yourself upset, confused, or frustrated with that person, it’s worth it to check in and have a conversation.
What is NOT Helpful For Someone Struggling?
If someone you know has confided in you, responding in a supportive manner is extremely important. Examples of what not to do are interrupting them while they’re sharing their feelings, blaming them for the situation at hand or emotions they’re feeling, or giving unsolicited advice. These may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how easy it can be to do them in circumstances that are unfamiliar to you.
No one expects you to fully understand or empathize with them when they speak about experiences you’ve never encountered– they’re likely just looking for someone to listen. Also, know that even if you have gone through something similar, you still don’t know “exactly how they feel.” This phrase is often unhelpful because, odds are, they are still experiencing this situation differently than you. Allow them to describe how they feel so you can listen and understand.
You should also avoid saying things like “we all go through that,” “I think you’re just having an emotional week,” “it will get better soon,” or “focus on the positives.” This dismisses their emotions and doesn’t acknowledge that mental health concerns are not negated by “thinking happy thoughts.”
Any blaming, shaming, or guilt-tripping is a pretty obvious area to avoid. However, this includes less obvious phrases like “well, you know that’s not going to make you feel better,” or “don’t think that, no one else feels that way.” These examples aren’t as glaringly harmful but can shift the blame onto the person struggling. Often, those with mental health issues cannot control their thoughts and may use unhealthy coping strategies. Usually, they’re completely aware of an issue, and pointing it out does nothing but lead them to resent you.
Be wary of the advice you give as well; when someone is going through a mental health challenge, they typically don’t want to hear what you think they should do. Not only is it probably not what they’re looking for, but it can also make them feel like they’re doing something wrong by not being more proactive or rejecting your advice. Stick to only giving advice when they ask for it or seem to be in a problem/solution type of situation. However, mental health crises are often much more complicated than that!
What IS Helpful for Someone Struggling?
While some pretty obvious things should be avoided, what’s more important is focusing on how to give beneficial support. No one is asking you to be perfect, and you’re likely not an expert on mental health, but there are things you can begin practicing to help you improve your listening and response skills.
If you’re completely unsure where to start, ask them. Let them know that although you don’t have a lot of experience with this, you want to help and are ready to listen. Do they just need someone to listen? Would it be helpful to set aside a day to clean their room with them or keep them company while they do so? Do they need daily encouragement and reminders of their success? Do they need to vent and then spend some time alone? Everyone is different, and every situation is different, so just ask if you don’t feel like you know them well enough or don’t want to overstep.
The most important way to show your support is through your words. Use comforting, understanding language. Simple things like “it makes sense that you would feel like that,” “that sounds really tough,” or “I know I can’t fix it, but I’m always here to listen.” These phrases can go a long way. Allow them to see that you are there for them in the ways that they need, and they’re not a burden for coming to you with their emotions.
While you don’t want to cross any boundaries or make them upset, suggest that they speak to a professional if you notice these behaviors persisting for a significant period of time. Avoid blaming them or making them feel like there’s something “wrong” with them, and instead suggest that it could be beneficial to reach out and talk to someone who can help on a deeper level than you can. You can even suggest helping them look if that’s something they would find helpful!
You cannot fix their problems but can only be a source of support. If you feel that they continue to struggle without seeking help, a gentle yet serious conversation may need to occur. If you think that your own mental health is beginning to suffer, or they are reaching a place where they may be dangerous to themselves or others, do what you can to get them to reach out.
If anyone ever discloses a desire to hurt themselves or others, report this immediately to a guardian or mental health professional. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) 273-8255.
We have all faced mental health challenges, but sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what to say or how to behave around other people who are struggling so you don’t upset or trigger them. The most important thing to remember is that no one wants to feel like people pity them, walk on eggshells around them, or avoid them. Be honest and open with those in your life facing mental hardship, and reflect back on the tactics in this article to see what you can do to support them.