photo by Andres Ayrton for Pexels
by Andrea M. Darcy
We can have best intentions when we decide to reach out to someone, but can end up making things worse instead of better. Here’s how to reach out and help.
How to reach out to others who are struggling
So what do you need to keep in mind when you reach out to someone you care about?
1. Don’t assume you know what they want.
Let’s say it’s a certain holiday and you can’t imagine being alone for them. You then assume someone else who will be alone isn’t okay with it, but wants to celebrate. But actually, that person would rather be alone and when you invite them they feel obliged to say yes even when it will make them feel worse.
So what to do instead of make assumptions?
2. Ask and then listen.
Instead of assuming how someone feels or what they want, ask. Not with just a ‘how are you’ which begs for a false ‘fine’ as an answer. Try a more open, inquisitive approach.
- “What is going on for you right now?”
- “How are you really feeling?”
- “I have been thinking about you. Is there anything I could help you with?”
- “Would you like to talk? I’m happy to listen”.
Listening doesn’t mean waiting for them to stop sharing so you can share your similar story, or give advice.
Listening means putting all of your mental attention on what they are saying, and reflecting back what they say if you are uncertain.
Read more about good listening in our article, “How to Listen Like a Therapist“.
3. At the same time, if they are depressed, know that it might be their depression talking.
photo by Christina Morillo by Pexels
If the person is depressed, accept that they might say sensational things. They might seem very negative, very dramatic, or even accusatory.
By all means it’s important to have boundaries if someone is being mean or inappropriate. But do remember that depression powerfully affects thinking and is hard to control. Later, the depressed person will go over the conversation and judge themselves.
So try not to take what they say personally. Just reflect back and listen as well as you can.
If you think they are suicidal, read our article, “How to help someone who is suicidal“. You might also want to help them make a ‘safety plan’ for how to stay safe from their thoughts, which is well explained by the charity Staying Safe here.
4. Be consistent, not persistent.
Depressed and anxious people experience a lot of shame. So they are highly likely to pretend they are fine even if they aren’t.
If, the first time you contact them, they brush you off, don’t believe it. If you have even the tiniest instinct they are depressed or anxious, keep checking in with them. It’s not about being pushy and persistent and trying to make them talk to you.
It’s about being consistent, and showing them there is someone constantly there for them and thinking of them. It helps someone feel less alone. A simply text daily can go a long way, or invitations to video chat, even if they are constantly rejected.
5. Educate yourself.
We live in a world where information about depression, anxiety, and mental health is readily available. As little as one hour of your time spent on research can give you a grasp on what the person you are concerned about is going through.
It’s much easier to help someone if we have an idea of what they are experiencing. Otherwise we can make them feel like an animal in a zoo, or we can end up offering toxic sympathy over useful empathy.
6. As for advice and positive cheer, just… nope.
Full of advice for how the person should or shouldn’t fix themselves and their lives? Just, don’t.
Advice is patronising on a good day. If someone is depressed or anxious, it feels judgemental at a moment they are already judging themselves.
As for truisms and positivity, sayings like, ‘it could be worse!’, ‘keep smiling!’, etcetera? Again, it just comes across as a judgement call, or, worse, like you are brushing them off. Go back to the basic rule — ask, then listen.
And instead of advice, or talking, consider asking them to do something. Activity, whether it is going for a walk in nature or seeing some theatre, is helpful for getting depressed people out of the negative thinking cycle that feeds their low moods.
7. Respect their privacy.
If a depressed or anxious person does open up to you, respect their courage. This means not rushing to share what they say with others. No, not even your partner, or your mutual friend. Something shared in privacy is a gift of trust. Respect it and them.
The only reason this can change is if you are concerned they will hurt themselves and don’t know what to do. Then by all means talk to their extended social circle and discuss how serious the threat is and what can be done. If it is an imminent threat, if they seem to have a concrete plan for hurting themselves, call emergency services.
8. Don’t offer what you can’t deliver.
Perhaps to you it seems no big deal if you promise you’ll call then don’t, or offer to deliver something to their house then get distracted and forget. Life happens, right? Sure.
But for someone who is already feeling disappointed by life or other people, being let down yet again, even in a small way, can feel crushing.
Don’t offer support you can’t deliver on. This includes promising to be there for them if you can’t. Be honest if it’s beyond your capacity, such as if you are struggling yourself. Instead, help them think of someone who can help, or find resources to help, such as a list of helplines.
**Find our list of free and confidential helplines in the UK here.**
9. Don’t do it because you think you should, but because you want to.
If you are reaching out to someone because you feel you ‘should’, or as it fits your idea of what a ‘good person‘ should do? It might be better to back off entirely.
Nobody wants to feel a burden. And someone who is depressed already feels that way, they don’t need you adding to the feeling. Reach out because you actually care and really do want to help.
Need help with mental health yourself? Or want to offer a friend or loved one a paid for therapy session? We connect you with friendly and expert talk therapists based in central London. Or use our online therapy booking site to find UK-wide therapists. Note that most of our therapists now offer sessions over the internet.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert and personal development teacher with training in person-centred counselling and coaching, as well as a popular psychology writer. Follow her on Instagram for useful life tips @am_darcy