Trying to be there for a friend or family member when they are struggling with their mental health can be challenging. Maybe they haven't communicated to you directly that they are struggling, or if they have, then maybe you don't know what to say or how to help. But sticking with the person you care about when times are tough can also be incredibly rewarding. Supporting someone through the hard times can help build trust, connection, and greater understanding of each other. Below are some tips to help you show up for someone struggling with their mental health.
Don't ignore it: If you notice that your friend or family member is acting differently than usual, this could be a sign that they are struggling. While it is definitely important to notice if they seem sadder than usual, people who are struggling with their mental health can express many different signs and symptoms. Some other signs are if they seem more irritable than usual, stop spending time with you or others, have low energy, or have trouble concentrating. If you notice some of these signs and suspect that someone you know is struggling, don't ignore it and hope that it goes away. This is your opportunity to bring it up with them so you can offer support. You can say something like this: “I've been noticing that you seem more sad than normal. Is everything okay?”.
Be patient: If this is the first time your friend or family member is struggling with their mental health, they may not know what is happening. This can make it hard for them to communicate with you what is going on. You probably won't have much luck forcing them to talk to you, so it is best to be patient and kind to the person struggling. If you tried asking them what's wrong and they weren't yet ready to talk, they will know they can come to you when they do feel ready.
Ask how you can help: If you are able to have a conversation with your friend about their mental health but you don't know what to say, ask them how you can best support them. Different people need different things, and you won't know unless you ask. You can even offer suggestions of ways you can help. Maybe they need you to text or call them more frequently to check in, or maybe they want you to come over and distract them by watching a movie together or making dinner. You can always offer a listening ear and space for them to talk about how they are feeling or include them in plans to help them get out of their head.
What not to say: Even when we have the best intentions, we may not always say the right thing for the moment. It can be especially important to avoid further isolating, blaming or stigmatizing someone when they are struggling with their mental health. Things you should avoid saying are “Don't cry”, “It's all in your head”, or “It's not that bad”/”it could be worse”. All of these phrases minimize how the person is feeling. Their feelings are valid and you can encourage them to share their thoughts with you by creating a safe, non-judgmental space for them to express themselves.
What to say instead: Years ago I watched a short YouTube video with a speech by Dr. Brené Brown, a researcher and author on courage, vulnerability, and shame, that shares an incredible phrase for these kinds of situations: “I don't even know what to say, I'm just so glad you told me.” She says that in these moments, there isn't much that we can say to make the other person feel better, we just need to be there with them and connect. Here are some other things you can say: “I really care about you and I'm so sorry you're going through this right now”, and “This sounds really hard, how are you coping?”. And remember to never give advice unless they say that is okay.
Finding professional help: If your friend or loved one has been feeling down for a long period of time, or are feeling overwhelmed and like they can't cope by themselves, you may want to ask how they feel about seeking professional help. Professional help can mean a school counselor or therapist who will be able to provide objective and unbiased expertise, and can offer coping skills. You can show support by helping to find a counselor, set up an appointment, or even go with your friend to their appointment.
Take care of yourself: While supporting someone who is struggling with their mental health, it is important to remember to also take care of yourself. Providing emotional support to someone can be taxing and you need to make sure you are not pouring from an empty cup. In other words, if you are feeling down or don't have any energy for yourself, then you won't be able to provide support to someone else. Make sure you are checking in with yourself and filling your cup by surrounding yourself with loved ones, and doing things that you enjoy.
Caring for someone struggling with their mental health can be hard, and you may not always know the best thing to say or do. Remember that talking with your friend or loved one is better than ignoring it, and you can help by being patient, listening without judging, and asking how you can best support them. Most importantly, make sure you are also taking care of yourself. You may not always say or do the right thing but don't give up. Being there for someone you care about can help you to build trust, connection, and lasting friendships.