It’s often hard to know how to support someone who’s struggling with their mental health. You may worry you’ll say the wrong thing or be unable to help.
I’ve been on both sides of the conversation — the one needing support and the one giving it. I’m more sympathetic because of my experience with mental health issues, but I don’t always know how to help.
When I’ve needed support, it helped to have people by my side who were there to listen to me. There wasn’t much they could do aside from showing me they care and being there when I needed a distraction.
Support doesn’t have to be incredible insight or advice. It can simply mean being there. It may be hard to know how to be there, though.
A lot of people have heard the phrase, “It gets better.” It seems like a hopeful sentiment, but many in the mental health community, myself included, do not care for this phrase.
“It gets better” shrugs off the current pain and issues. While the phrase may be true, you’re not addressing the person’s concerns and troubles at the moment. Telling someone their issues may lessen in an arbitrary time frame means nothing.
For me, it was frustrating to hear this phrase because I had tried to feel better for years. I felt ignored when someone would tell me “it gets better” or to “wait it out.” That doesn’t validate the very real pain I experienced. It’s like telling someone to shut up because you don’t want to hear about their problems.
People don’t use the phrase to be invalidating. They don’t realize there are much better ways to support someone.
Here are some tips for helping a friend struggling with their mental health:
Validate their concerns and emotions. Let them tell you what’s going on. You don’t need to offer solutions or advice. Get on their level and let them know you understand. Sometimes people just need someone to listen. Here are some alternative phrases to “It Gets Better” that are actually validating:
“I understand you’re feeling _____. You have every right to feel that way.”
“That’s really hard to go through, so it makes sense that you would be struggling.”
“You don’t have to be OK all the time. It’s also OK to feel hurt or upset.”
What you say depends on the situation, of course. Validation may seem disingenuous when you actively use it but in my experience, I’m never trying to say the “right” thing. I’ve become more sympathetic, and I listen intently. I want to validate someone’s feelings because I care and believe them.
Let them know you’re there for them. Now and in the future. It takes a lot to open up to others. If you let someone know you’ll be there for them, you become a “safe” person. A safe person is someone whom they can trust or lean on when needed.
While it’s nice to provide support for others, make sure it’s not at the expense of your wellbeing. Your mental health is important, too. It’s one thing to put someone’s needs before yours in a moment of crisis or hardship. It’s another to constantly put another person’s needs before yours.
Ask them if you can do anything to help. They may not need anything from you (aside from being there). Asking is another way to show you care.
Check up on them. It’s a good idea to reach out to your friend, even if they haven’t reached out to you. Ask them how they’re doing, honestly. You don’t need to hound them, but people can pull away when they need support the most. Sometimes you may need to take the initiative.
Offer to help them find resources or help if needed. You can offer to look into resources if they decide to get professional help. Sometimes people aren’t ready to reach out, but if there’s a concern, you could ask them if they’d be willing to try. Don’t force treatment but make sure they know it’s an option.
Ask them if they’re thinking about suicide. This may seem extreme, but if you’re worried, it’s better to ask than to ignore your concerns. It shows you care, and you can help them find the resources they need.
At the end of the day, showing you care is more important than the words you choose. Don’t let the fear of saying the wrong thing keep you from helping someone.