How to help someone you’re worried about

When someone you love is struggling with their mental health, it can be hard to know what to say and do. Sometimes we can feel concerned if our efforts to help someone don’t seem to be working, or frustrated if they say they don’t want or need our help.

There are a number of ways you can recognise if someone is struggling with their mental health including:

  • Unusually quiet or withdrawn
  • Taking less care in their appearance
  • Looks tired, or says they’re not sleeping well
  • Easily agitated, reacts disproportionately
  • Not joining in conversations when they normally would
  • Complaining a lot, lacking motivation to address their concerns (seeming helpless and hopeless)
  • Sighing a lot
  • Under performing at work, especially in areas they normally excel
  • Says “I’m just tired” when you ask what’s wrong

Of course, the best way to find out how someone is, is to ask them – but often people will say “I’m fine“. This is why it can help to ask twice, by asking “how are you really?” as shown in the video by Time to Change below:

When someone is feeling low, your instinct might be to try and cheer them up. But when we tell someone what they need, they can feel unheard or misunderstood. Helping someone compassionately involves:

  • Asking them over for a brew and a catch up, without an agenda. Don’t stop asking them if they say no, keep trying periodically
  • Creating a safe space for them to speak openly
  • Listening without judgement – and specifically know when to stop talking
  • Asking open questions – eg “what‘s going through your mind right now?”
  • Knowing your limits – if the conversation feels like it’s too difficult for you to manage, or if you feel out of your depth, refer them to help (see below)
  • Signposting where appropriate – eg encourage them to talk to their GP or the Samaritans. You might find these links useful, including some tips for talking by Heads Together
  • Keeping your promises. If you say you’re going to check in on them then make sure you do, even if it’s just sending them a text message to see how they’re doing.

If someone says they don’t need or want help, you might feel like there’s nothing more you can do. But it can help to let them know you’re there when they’re ready to talk, and to check in on them from time to time.

Here’s a video by Megan Devine about how to help a grieving friend which applies just as much to those in other types of emotional pain:

These are things which tend NOT to help:

  • Expecting them to call you because you’ve said they can; a person struggling with their mental health is unlikely to reach out – at least at first – if they feel like a burden. This is why even if they don’t seem to be accepting help, it’s good to say you’ll check in on them in a few days anyway;
  • Telling someone you know exactly how they feel. Although you might have a shared experience, you genuinely don’t know how they feel. If you connect with something they say, saying things like “that makes sense”, keeps the conversation about them rather than you;
  • Saying there are people who have it worse, or they should be grateful for what they have. This just suggests you don’t understand or don’t want to hear it, and they’ll be less likely to talk

It’s also important in situations like this that you take care of yourself. It can be draining when you don’t know what to do or how to help, so make sure you include a self-care routine in your daily schedule so that your capacity to cope is less impacted. The healthier you are, the more you can help when it’s needed.

©️ Delphi Ellis 2019

About Delphi Ellis

Qualified Counsellor, Mental Health and Well-Being Trainer, and Mindfulness Practitioner. Creator of Monday Mojo™. Talks 'Lady Business', raising awareness of factors which predominantly affect Women's Mental Health like pregnancy and domestic abuse. Helping to improve the global conversation, and bring an end to stigma and shaming. Dream Explorer as seen on the telly. Avid tea drinker.

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