Mental Wealth: What to say to your friends struggling with their mental health

Christa McWhirter

Mental illnesses make people uncomfortable, but it’s not because of the actual illness  — it’s that people simply don’t know what to say.

It isn’t their fault, though. No one ever tells you what to say when these situations arise, and if they do, it’s to sympathize by pitying instead of empathizing by attempting to understand. But this is the thing: There are plenty of helpful things you can say and I’m here to tell you what you can say.

The most important thing is to never assume you know exactly what to do in any situation. Mental illnesses are complex and deeply personal, and what may help in a given scenario varies from person to person.

Start by asking what you can do to help. When friends ask what they can do for me in moments when I clearly can’t handle my emotions on my own, I hear much more than that question alone. Their question is a way of showing they want me around and they care enough to want me to be happy. A simple question can make all the difference and is a safe way to start any conversation with empathy, especially in a sensitive scenario.

If you ask what you can do and get something back like “Nothing,” or “I don’t know,” don’t stop. There are other things you can say for support. Ask more specific questions, such as if they want a hug or if they want to be left alone. When friends or peers ask me these kinds of questions, they bring the focus back to the solution and issue at hand, something many struggle with.

If your friend is opening up to you and telling you about how they feel, saying something as simple as, “That sucks,” helps validate that your friend’s emotions are acceptable and that you don’t judge them for feeling that way.

This has personally helped me in times when, feeling really depressed or anxious, all I wanted is to know that I’m not crazy.

For those with mental illness, validation is one of the most overlooked ways that they can be helped. It can be difficult to know what to validate, so you need to be careful about the words you choose, but saying a situation sucks is a pretty safe bet if you’re really unsure.

As far as what not to say, I only have one piece of advice: Never offer unsolicited advice. If someone you know has not asked for advice, don’t give it. Most people are not medical professionals and have no idea what it takes to treat a mental illness. Like I mentioned before, these are extremely complex and personal conditions.

Think of it this way: If you give the wrong person the wrong advice, you could send them down a really bad path, even if you had good intentions. It’s important to recognize when you are out of your realm of expertise. Mental illness is no time to get caught up in trying to fix a “lost soul.”

Knowing who you are talking to is the most foolproof way to help someone. Being a good friend and allowing people with mental illness to have an outlet to talk about their situations is the most helpful thing you can ever do for them.

It has taken me a very long time to understand that I am allowed to feel however I want to and that my feelings are valid. But I would have had a much shorter road had more people tried to empathize with me instead of sympathize with me.