If you're worried about someone else's mental health, it's important to do what you can to help.
The question is - what can you do? You might wonder how to bring up the subject of mental or emotional health with a friend, family member, or colleague. Will they be insulted? Will they think you're being nosy? What if you push them further into denial or trigger even worse feelings and behaviors?
Being worried about someone else's mental health and not knowing what to do can be extremely stressful. The action you take will depend on your relationship with this person and it will also depend on what kind of problem you suspect they have.
While every situation is different, there are some practical guidelines you can follow for knowing what to say and where to get help. The more you know about mental health and treatment, the better the position you will be in to offer informed advice and to access the support your loved one needs.
Remember, it helps to feel like someone else cares. Without support, compassion and empathy, mental illness can be a very lonely road.
Spotting a mental health problem in someone else
Perhaps you're worried about someone else's mental health - how do you know if their behavior is an illness or a passing phase caused by difficult events in their life? When things go wrong in life, we become vulnerable to mental health problems. Events including bereavement, divorce and redundancy can lead to periods of mental distress. However, when those initial reactions don't settle after time, they can develop into long-term mental health problems such as PTSD and Major Depressive Disorder.
Take the time to observe your friend/family member/colleague's behavior and look out for the following signs:
Have they become more withdrawn than usual? Are they avoiding social contact and refusing invitations?
Have you noticed them crying a lot? Puffy cheeks and red eyes can indicate they've been crying in private.
Has their performance at school or work gone downhill lately?
Have you noticed significant changes in their eating habits, such as eating more or less than usual?
Are they looking more disheveled or like they aren’t taking as much care of themselves?
Have you noticed a change in how they speak - rapidly, incoherently, or slowly?
Do they seem to be spending extravagant amounts of money?
Are they acting irritable or discontented? Do simple questions set them off?
Remember that every mental health problem has its own signs and symptoms - often these can be missed or dismissed as quirky character traits. But, if you have a feeling something isn't quite right with someone you know very well, then chances are, it's not. It’s really important to listen to those gut instincts, these could be the only way your loved one gets the help they need.
Should I talk to them?
Often, the hardest part of having a mental illness - whether diagnosed or not - is not knowing how to talk about it. So yes, if you're worried about someone else's mental health then the best thing you can do is talk to them. You never know, they might have been struggling to bring up the topic with you.
Of course, mental health isn't exactly a natural conversation starter and, depending on your relationship with this person, you might find it an extremely difficult topic to bring up. Most people struggle to broach difficult subjects, even with family members and close friends (sometimes especially with family members and close friends).
While you may not know how this person is feeling inside, you can help them by asking questions and inviting them to talk about how they feel. Even if they're not ready to open up to you, the interest you show in them will help them see that someone is there to listen.
Talking to someone about their mental health
How do you bring up the topic of mental health with someone you're worried about? If you're not sure how to start a conversation about mental health with someone you're worried about, you can follow our tips below.
Check your mindset. Approach the conversation with the right intentions and keep as open-minded as possible. Try to do some background research if you can - the fact that you’re here reading this shows that you’re on the right track.
Consider the time and place. Think about the problem this person could be dealing with. If you’re worried it’s an alcohol problem, don’t bring the conversation up over a drink.
Pick your moment. Whatever the problem is and whatever your relationship is with the person you're worried about, pick your moment carefully and try to choose a time when you're both getting along quite nicely i.e. when you're out for a walk, having a cup of tea, or doing something casual like watching TV.
Be honest. Don't beat around the bush - take control of the situation and be forthright. Ask how they are, say you've noticed they've been acting differently lately and that you want to help if you can.
Listen carefully. Don't try to offer your advice straight away - at first, you need to listen to them. Even if you have first-hand experience of mental illness, everyone's experience is different. Although you may be trying to normalize the situation, you could risk sounding like you think their situation is trivial.
How can I encourage someone to get help?
Try to focus on the things they’re doing right - no matter how small. Tell them they're doing a good thing by talking about it and show them a clear path ahead. While you should try to give them hope, you should also try to resist taking too much control. The fact remains that you don't know what's going on in their head.
Provide some helpful mental health resources
You could send them links to useful mental health websites or forums where they can read up about mental health problems, share their experiences with other people, and find out how to get help.
If you think they might benefit from seeing a counselor or enrolling in a residential treatment program, do some research online about the mental health providers that specialize in these areas also encourage them to browse counselor profiles to get a better idea of what therapy involves. There are still misconceptions about counseling and psychotherapy, which can put some people off the idea. But, reading personal stories from others and knowing what to expect from a session can help to take away those doubts and anxieties.
Offer practical support
Showing that you're there to support their decisions and offer emotional support is invaluable.
Sometimes, though, there are small tasks you can do to help them find their own solutions and make life a little easier - offering them a lift to GP appointments or helping them write a letter to their boss, for example.
Even if your friend, family member or colleague does manage to get the support and treatment they need, they may still need your support. The 'support' you show doesn't have to be anything big. Simply picking up the phone or sending a text to see how they are can be a big help.
What can I do if they don’t want my help?
If someone you care about is struggling but can't - or won't - reach out for help, and won't accept any help you offer, it's understandable to feel frustrated, distressed and powerless. But, it’s important to accept their decision and to understand that there are always limits to what you can do to support another person.
How can I look after myself?
All of us go through difficult times in our lives and, sometimes, these will see us leaning on friends or family for support. When you’re the one taking on the role of a supportive friend, however, it can be easy to let your own needs fall by the wayside.
But, although it might sound easier said than done, it’s really important that you prioritize yourself and your self-care. After all, you can be of no support to others if you are not feeling supported and capable of taking on someone else’s mental load.
Being in the role of carer and supporter can be a heavy weight to carry, so it can be extremely helpful to have other things in place, as part of self-care. This may be a hobby, sport, or friendship group, in addition to considering having personal counseling, so that there is somewhere that everything can be talked through in confidence, with no judgment over the different feelings and experiences that the situation has brought about.
- Isabel Fulcher (MBACP) explores how to take care of yourself if you’re supporting a partner with mental health challenges.
If you regularly support someone with a mental health problem you might be considered a carer. For further information, see our carer support page or read more about self-care for caregivers.
What do I do if the person is in crisis?
There may be times when your friend or family member needs to seek help more urgently, such as if they:
have harmed themselves and need medical attention
are having suicidal feelings, and feel they may act on them
are putting themselves or someone else at immediate, serious risk of harm
If you feel able to do so, stay with them and help them call 911 for an ambulance, or help them get to an emergency room where they can talk to a crisis worker.