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How to Help Someone Struggling with Their Mental Health

Published on Jul. 12, 2022

mental health support

Most people are quick to respond to people in need of help. But while you might not think twice about donating food or pulling out your first aid kit in search of a bandage, helping someone address their mental health might not come as easily.

When a loved one is grappling with anxiety, depression, or something else, knowing what to do can feel agonizing. Every time you consider approaching this person, you might think: 

  • What if I offend them?
  • What if I make things worse?
  • What if they won’t talk to me and shut me out?
  • I’m scared to have this conversation because I’m not a mental health professional.
  • Maybe this is none of my business…

Reaching out to someone who’s struggling with a mental health disorder is the right choice. It’s essential for this person to feel heard, supported, and loved. But approaching the conversation is a delicate matter. 

Your Approach Is Everything

mother comforting an upset daughterIf you’re hesitant to reach out, it’s likely for good reason: you’re contemplating what – and how – you will approach this person. Thinking ahead is a step in the right direction. But how do you know whether your approach will be helpful? Just as caregivers, first responders, and medical providers take first aid training so they know just what to do in an emergency, having an action plan guided by experts is important for supporting someone who is coping with a mental health crisis.

“It’s common for a person in crisis to feel alone and isolated. Knowing how to help can be the difference between an undesirable outcome and an outcome that supports hope and healing,” says Valerie Harpel, APRN-BC, Clinical Nurse Specialist with Munson Behavioral Health. 

Mental Health First Aid Training can help you fine-tune your approach so the person you’re helping feels at ease.

“There’s a lot of inaccurate information associated with mental health disorders, which can make talking about it difficult – including for the person in your life who’s struggling," says Harpel. “Mental Health First Aid Training can teach you what to look for if you’re concerned about someone’s well-being and how to supportively approach the subject and guide them toward the best resources.”

Using the Mental Health First Aid Action Plan

The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Action Plan includes five steps, which you can use in any order. All you have to do is familiarize yourself with ALGEE:

A – Approach, assess for risk of suicide or harm.

Seek an appropriate time or place to start the conversation that honors your loved one’s privacy and confidentiality. A public place or even talking in a more personal space with others nearby most likely won’t feel safe to them. And a phone call from your car or while engaging in another task won’t set the right tone. Remember, if your loved one doesn’t want to confide in you, don’t take it personally. Instead, encourage them to talk to someone they trust.

L – Listen nonjudgmentally.

Being truly heard is of utmost importance to many people going through distress, so don’t be afraid to stay quiet while they share. Instead, nod and maintain eye contact to show that you’re listening. 

It’s important to drop any preconceived notions about how you might feel or react in the same situation. Remember that your loved one has their own thoughts, feelings, and challenges shaped by both genetics and personal experiences. This will help you come to the conversation with empathy.

You can get the conversation started by saying something like, “I noticed that …” or “I’m worried about you. Can we talk?” Be as accepting as possible, even if you don’t agree with or fully understand what they are sharing.

G – Give reassurance and information.

When someone has opened up to you about their feelings and experiences, it’s important to give a sense of hope along with some helpful facts, such as…

  • Mental health problems don’t define who you are.
  • It takes courage and strength to ask for help.
  • This is a disorder of the brain that is treatable.
  • You’re not alone.

E – Encourage appropriate professional help.

The sooner your loved one gets help, the better their chances of recovery. It’s important to offer to help them learn more about their options, such as talking with their primary care provider, looking at options for therapy, and sharing websites that provide information about mental health disorders and promote well-being.

E – Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

Professional help is just one component of healing. Feeling surrounded by support at every turn is just as important for your loved one’s recovery. This can include helping them:

  1. Find support networks, such as family or friends and/or a support group 
  2. Develop a self-care program that focuses on their psychological and physical well-being (exercise, nutrition, sleep, exploring self-help books, etc.)

What NOT to Do or Say

two older individuals holding hands, with a focus on the handsAs you learn what feels most safe and nurturing to your loved one in need, there are also some things you should avoid. Use these helpful reminders from the MHFA’s training curriculum to understand what won’t feel supportive to your loved one. 

  1. Don’t tell someone with depression to get better. They can’t “snap out of it” or “get over it.”
  2. If your loved one attempts to be responsive, accept their responses as the best they can offer at that time.
  3. Don’t adopt an overinvolved or overprotective attitude toward someone who is depressed.
  4. Don’t become defensive if they decline your help. Instead, encourage them to talk with someone they feel comfortable or safe with.
  5. Do not nag the person to try to get them to do what they normally would.
  6. Do not trivialize the person’s experiences by pressuring them to “put a smile on your face,” “get your act together” or “lighten up.”
  7. Do not belittle or dismiss the person’s feelings by attempting to say something positive like, “You don’t seem that bad to me.”
  8. Avoid speaking to the person in a patronizing tone of voice or looking at them with an overly concerned expression.

What About Acquaintances or Strangers?

These same suggestions apply to anyone – not just a dear friend or family member. Not everyone has close relatives or friends they can comfortably confide in. By reaching out, you could make a huge impact on this person – and even save their life. At the very least, this person knows someone is paying attention and cares. 

“Reaching out, voicing your concern, and saying, ‘How can I help you?’ are potentially three life-changing actions you can do for someone who is experiencing a crisis,” explains Harpel.

Find Support for Your Loved One

Mental Health MATTERS. For a complete list of mental health supports to help you or your loved ones, click on the button below.

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Take the Training

Build your support skills with the help of Mental Health First Aid, a national program that teaches the skills needed to respond to the signs of mental illness and substance abuse.

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