Supporting friends and loved ones

How often have you been asked “How are you?”

How often have you responded by saying “Fine thanks, how are you?” 

How often do you give an automatic response and avoid saying how you really feel?  

One in four of us will experience mental health difficulties in our lives. Yet, research shows that over three-quarters of us would tell friends and family we are fine, even if we were struggling.   

How might you respond if you are not okay? How would it feel to tell a friend that you have been in a dark place for a while or that your anxiety is spiralling out of control?  Whatever the problem it can takes real courage to talk about it. 

So, when you sense something is up with a friend or a loved one, how do you get past “Fine thanks” and find out what is really going on? 

Look for the signs 

Sometimes it is not hard to tell that a friend is having a difficult time. Maybe they have just been through a breakup, have a chronic illness or have lost a loved one. But, other times, it is not so obvious. But there may be changes in their demeanour or appearance. Maybe they are not keeping in touch or perhaps, they are looking more tired than usual. You want to be there for them but where do you start?  

Find the right moment 

It is important to find the right time and a place for this kind of conversation. In a perfect world, you might put away your devices, brew a cup of tea and create a cosy spot where your friend feels comfortable enough to open up. 

With lockdown this may not be feasible just yet, but there are still ways you can put your friend at ease. If you are checking in virtually, pick a time when they can chat without distractions such as work or childcare. If you are meeting in real-life, pick a spot that is away other people. It takes courage to share thoughts and feelings, especially if they are dark or disturbing, so it is important that you are ready for what might be a difficult conversation for both of you.  

Ask more than once 

Admitting you are not okay is really tough. And so, it is understandable that it may be difficult for someone to open up straight away. If you suspect a friend, family member or colleague is struggling, asking twice could make all the difference. By asking something as simple as ‘are you sure you are okay?’,it shows that you are genuinely there for them. 

Listen and let them know you care 

We have all been there. We have poured our heart out to someone, told them our worries and fears and they have tried to say all the right words and solve our problems. But sometimes there is no easy solution. Sometimes there is no magic wand to make it all better, and nothing that can be said to take away the pain. You do not have to have all the answers. Just being there and listening could be all the help they need. 

It is important to let them know that you are checking in because you care and are concerned. If they do not feel comfortable opening up just yet, that is fine. You can respect their decision but be on hand in case they change their mind.  

Offer to help 

Sometimes it is less about what you say and more about what you do. So, if your friend is in a dark place and words are not enough, why not ask if there is anything practical you can do to help?

If they are grieving and are not eating well, you could offer to cook a homemade dinner. Or, if a colleague is struggling out and overwhelmed, you could offer to take on a job to alleviate their workload.  

Mental health is a subject that touches all of our lives. It is likely you, or someone you know, has experienced mental health problems, whether its anxiety and depression or bipolar disorder. Sometimes, hearing someone else’s story can be all it takes to show that other people just like you have been through similar experiences, and they came through the other side.  

Help them consider having therapy

In other instances, you may not feel equipped to help – and that is okay. If it feels like it is beyond your scope, you could offer to help them find a therapist. For those new to therapy, it can be difficult to know where to begin and having someone to look at options with can be comforting and reassuring. Be prepared for some resistance though. Therapy can be a big scary step but try to remind them that therapy can be a short-term investment with long term gains.