How do I support a loved one who is struggling with their mental health?
This is a question we hear a lot. So many of us grapple with mental health — in fact,1 in 5 U.S. adults experience a mental health condition each year. The pandemic has made everything feel even more intense and amplified. Rates of anxiety and depression have risen more than 25% since 2020, according toresearch.
None of us are alone in this, yet it still feels lonely and scary to start a conversation — even with our closest friends and family. This stems from a longstanding culture of silence and stigma around mental health.
“The heart of it is that we are not socialized to embrace our unpleasant feelings,” says licensed psychologistDr. Gaby Toloza, MS, PsyD. “Our culture teaches us that joy and pleasure are good and sadness, anger, and fear are bad. When we are raised in that mindset, it feels uncomfortable, vulnerable, and daunting to talk about our feelings.”
How do we overcome that fear and discomfort so we can help the people we love most? We asked experts for their advice on how to navigate tough conversations around mental health with friends and family. Here are their dos and don’ts to make your loved ones feel safe, seen, and supported no matter what they’re going through.
Do: Normalize conversations around mental health
You don’t need to wait until someone is struggling to start a conversation about feelings. In fact, it feels much more natural when you regularly check in with your friends and family. Dr. Toloza suggests making this a habit. “Break the ice in places that feel comfortable like over dinner, on walks, in the car, or while sipping a glass of wine,” she says. “You can ask questions like, ‘What went well today?’ ‘What was hard today?’ or ‘What do you want to scream about?’ Every opportunity to get real and vulnerable is a chance to open up even more dialogue.
Do: Pay attention for warning signs
Someone in your life may be struggling in silence, so keep an eye out for signs of depression or anxiety. According to Dr. Toloza, this can include irritability, a short fuse, changes in eating patterns or hygiene, or a noticeable lack of interest and motivation.
Don’t: Confront someone in a group
If you do suspect someone is struggling, avoid bringing it up in a group setting and instead approach them one-on-one. “If you talk to someone in an intimate way, you have a better chance of reaching them, especially if you already have a rapport and they know you care,” saysDebbie Whitehead, M.Ed., LPC, a licensed professional counselor.
If seeing someone in person isn’t an option or may feel daunting to them, texting is also a great tool, suggests Dr. Toloza. “It helps take some of the pressure off.”
Do: Ask gentle questions
Questions can open a conversation in a loving, non-judgemental, and non-confrontational way. The experts recommend questions such as:
Hey, how are you doing? I’ve been thinking of you.
I noticed you’ve been quiet/haven’t been around much lately. Is something going on you want to talk about?
I might be wrong, but I’ve sensed you’ve been a little sad/distant/insert other emotion. Do you want to talk about it?
I know this situation happened. How is it affecting you?
I’ve noticed this or know you’re going through this. What can I do to be there for you?
Do: Create space and listen
Once you’ve asked the question, it’s time to actively listen to their answer. “We all have the desire to be seen and heard, so just being there to witness their wounds is powerful and makes people feel safe,” Whitehead says.
Pay close attention to what they’re saying, acknowledge it, and reflect it back in a loving way. “You can say something like, ‘That sounds really hard. Do you want to tell me more about it?’” suggests Dr. Toloza. “You don’t need to offer solutions; you just want them to continue talking.”
Don’t: Minimize their experience
A natural instinct is to try to make someone feel better, but this can actually minimize their feelings. “People will say things like, ‘Look on the bright side. It could be worse. Let’s focus on the positives. You just have to be strong,’” Dr. Toloza says. “You may be trying to be helpful, but this dismisses what they’re experiencing. They may internalize that as judgment, and then they won’t feel safe to be vulnerable and continue sharing.”
Do: Simply be there for them
Instead of trying to lift someone’s mood or “fix the problem,” just be there as a quiet source of support and comfort. For example, Whitehead shared a story about when her mom passed away and she was grieving intensely. “One of my friends came over and sat with me in bed for hours,” she says. “We didn’t talk. She just let me cry and brought me my favorite dessert. That showed me I was safe with my friends and I started to open up.”
Express to your loved one that you are there for whatever they need. Dr. Toloza says, “My favorite line is something like, ‘I don’t know if there’s anything I can say that will make this better, but I’m here with you.’”
Do: Make small gestures
Small acts of kindness go a long way. Bring your friend their favorite food, make a playlist that will make them smile, ask them to go for a walk, take a yoga class, watch a movie, or any other activity they love. You can also text them with photos of happy memories, inspirational quotes, or funny memes to let them know you’re thinking of them, suggests Dr. Toloza. “Such a simple gesture can take the edge off,” she says. “It helps them see they’re not alone.”
Don’t: Push if they’re not ready
If you approach a loved one and they are not open to talking, it’s important to respect their wishes. “Everyone has their own journey and their own timing,” Whitehead says. “If they’re not ready to talk, just be there for them. Don’t pull away or treat them differently.”
If someone is persistent that they want to be alone and you feel it’s safe, it’s OK to give them space, says Dr. Toloza. “Make a plan to check on them later — tell them you’ll call in a few hours or make a date to see each other that night or the next day. But if you are worried for their safety, stay with them.”
Do: Ask for help if you need it
You may not be equipped to support your loved one if they are dealing with a serious mental health crisis. If that’s the case, ask for help. Dr. Toloza suggests you can say something like, “I’m worried about you and I want to help you be safe. Do you mind if I reach out to your partner/parent/sibling etc. so there are more people caring for you?”
If you feel like someone is experiencing suicidal thoughts or has the means to harm themselves or others, take them to the hospital or sit with them as they call a crisis line. “In this case, get someone else involved, especially if you’re not in the same physical area as the person,” Dr. Toloza says. “At that point, you are advocating for their safety and that’s most important.”
If you or a friend are looking for resources or crisis lines to reach out to, you can find themhere. To connect with a crisis counselor on our Crisis Text Line, text HERO to 741741 anytime.
Don’t: Feel like you have to say the “perfect” thing
Starting a conversation about mental health can be daunting, but don’t let fear or perfectionism stop you from reaching out. “Sometimes we think we have to say the most perfect things in order to speak up,” Whitehead says. “There is no perfect script. If we know someone is there for us and cares about us, that is the most important thing.”
Let’s all work together to end the silence!
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