When a friend is trying to open up to you about their depression, anxiety, or other mental health issue, it can be hard to know how to respond. We’ve come a long way, but there is still considerable stigma to admitting that you’re coping with mental health issues. If your friend is talking to you at all, they’re taking a huge step.
Writer Anne Thériault explained for Flare.com what it was like to tell friends and family that she had been admitted to a psychiatric ward for suicidal ideation. While Thériault feels she’s learned to talk about her mental health, she says she’s found other people often don’t know how to respond. Here are some of her suggestions.
Mostly just listen
It’s hard to hear that someone you care about is suffering. The impulse is to rush in and try and “fix” everything. But your friend is talking to you because they need to talk. Unless they’re directly asking for help, they probably only want you to listen and commiserate. Thériault says that unsolicited advice is one of the worst responses you can have:
Don’t ask them if they’ve seen a doctor. Don’t tell them to try therapy. Don’t suggest medication or yoga or long baths. I guarantee you that your friend has already considered many of these things; you’re certainly not the first person to ask if they’ve tried pot to help their anxiety.
When in doubt, nod and listen some more.
Take your tone from them
Humour is often used as a defence mechanism, and sometimes someone might want to joke about their depression; if they’re not joking, however, you shouldn’t be either. How someone introduces the topic will tell you a lot about how they want you to discuss it with them. Having been depressed myself, I do sometimes joke about it, but if someone tried to make a joke at my expense in a dark moment, it wouldn’t have gone over well.
Offer specific help
This comes up a lot in relation to grief, illness, or other extreme circumstances that might leave someone incapacitated — do not say “let me know if you need anything.”
What if I ask for too much, or something they’re not willing to give? Or, sometimes, if I’m really overwhelmed, I know that I need something but I can’t find the words to say what that is.
Offering specific suggestions like going out for coffee or ordering someone food allows them to simply say yes or no; depression and anxiety makes it hard to think clearly and identify your needs. Someone stepping up with simple ideas helps a lot with decision-making.
Everyone is different
These are beginning steps for how to speak to a friend who is talking about their mental health; obviously, everyone will be different and have different needs. To be supportive, start by remembering to not center yourself, your feelings, or your ideas for what they should be doing. Take it from there.