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  • Kwok Cheng Leng

How to Talk to Someone with Poor Mental Health

Have you ever been in a situation where a friend or loved one seemed to be struggling with their mental health but you didn’t know what to say? You might have wanted to offer support or comfort, but you were worried that your words might be interpreted wrongly and cause harm or offense instead.

If this situation seems foreign to you, then that’s good because it might mean that no one around you is dealing with poor mental health. However, it is still important to know what to say to someone who might be feeling down or uneasy as it's not uncommon for people to feel depressed or anxious. In fact, the pandemic has revealed a need for more mental health support as more people have been calling in to mental health helplines.

So, how can you help and what do you say?

1. Validate their feelings

Sometimes, it may be a thing for millennials or Gen-Zs to make self-deprecating jokes. But some of these comments may mean something deeper.

You think it’s a joke, but is it really?

If someone you know has been talking negatively for a while, make sure to treat their comments seriously. Some people might think that they’re feeling overly sensitive, so remember to remind them that it’s alright to feel whatever that they are feeling!

Occasionally, we might also unintentionally trivialize people’s feelings by sharing about our own difficulties that may not be as relatable or how others “have it harder”.

Do these kinds of responses look familiar to you? These might downplay the way people feel, causing them to feel more hurt.

Especially over text, you might not really know the intensity of what your friend or loved one could be feeling. Comparing what they’re experiencing to your own or others’ experiences might, while not deliberate, make light of their emotions. So, remember that what you’re experiencing or feeling is not a competition! It’s good to be mindful not to “one up” what someone is undergoing so as to not give your friends or family the impression that the way they’re feeling is insignificant.

Next time someone tells you they’re feeling sad or anxious, here are some responses you can give to validate their thoughts and feelings if you’re unsure what to type:

“I can see why you feel that way.”

“It makes sense that you think …”

“Your emotions are valid and it’s alright to feel that way.”

2. Show that you care

A study has shown that social support can lead to higher resilience and lower likelihood of stress and depression. That is why it is important to let your friends or family know that they are cared for. Showing care and concern doesn’t have to be fancy, straightforwardly telling your loved one that you’re there for them could suffice and have a much greater impact than you think.

If you’re hanging out with your friends or family, a hug or gentle pat on the back might also convey your concern. If possible, you could check in with them regularly via texting, calling or meeting them in person. Just knowing that you’re willing to put in the time to ask how they’re feeling or coping can also show a person that he or she is important to you.

Some replies you may give include:

“I’m available anytime you want to talk.”

“I may not exactly understand what you’re going through, but you’re not alone.”

“I just want to let you know that you’re important to me and I care about you.”

3. Listen when they want to talk

When your friends or family feel like they’re ready to share, try to listen without interrupting! From time to time, you might feel a natural urge to interject the conversation with your own experiences or thoughts, but this might end up unnecessarily diverting the attention away from the speaker.

At times, having a conversation does not equate to needing advice. Your friends or family may just want to get things off their chest, so you don’t need to feel obligated to pepper them with feedback every two sentences.

If they’re not ready to talk yet, don’t pressure them into confiding in you!

This is a response that only serves to harass people into revealing what they’re going through. Instead, you can let them know that it’s alright if they’re not willing to talk right now, but the option of talking to you will always be open.

While you might be eager to help, remember not to constantly ask your loved one for an update on whether they’re ok. Struggles with mental health cannot be solved instantaneously, and continuously asking about whether someone is feeling better can instead pressure him or her into getting better right now.

4. Ask how you can help

If someone you know has been suffering from poor mental health for a while, they might be a little clearer on what actions you can do to help and what would make them feel worse. So, don’t be afraid to ask them what they need and then see to getting it done. Make it clear to your friend or family member that they’re not a burden and that you’re willing to help them tide through a tough time.

Specific questions might also be good if your friend or loved one is unsure of how you could be of help. For instance, you could ask them if they need some space to think, or if going on a walk would help if they’re feeling anxious.

5. Encourage them to see a professional

Our last tip is to make sure to encourage your friends or family to seek professional help! Don’t say “why aren’t you seeing a therapist?” because that may sound accusatory. Instead, suggest professional help and see what their thoughts are on it. Offer to do some research and to accompany them to their first appointment, especially if they’re not so open to the concept.

If your friend or family member is skeptical or doesn’t want external help, please don’t give up on supporting them! You can continue to gently check in on them occasionally, and if you think they might be feeling worse but yet continue to ignore your concerns, then you might want to reach out to someone else for guidance, such as a school counselor or trusted adult.

All in all, besides talking to your friends or family about how they’re coping, it is also important to spend some quality time just relaxing or having fun with them. Having intense or serious conversations all the time will only serve as a constant reminder of how someone might not be coping well mentally, and can be especially demoralising for both you and your loved one when talking about repeated struggles with little to no progress. Finding time to go outdoors, play a game or have a meal together can also help to take someone’s mind off worrying issues and is a form of support as well.

Finally, know some warning signs of suicide so that we can recognize suicidal behaviour and prevent our loved ones from losing their lives.

If a person is:

  1. Talking a lot about wanting to die, having no reason to live or being a burden

  2. Significantly withdrawing from friends and loved ones

  3. Telling people goodbye without context, making up a will or giving away prized possessions

  4. Acting reckless or increased self-harmful behaviour such as the use or misuse of substances

  5. Looking for a way to end their life, such as searching online for possible methods

Please don't leave them alone and get help from a medical professional immediately. If you happen to live with them, you can also take precautions by moving dangerous items like penknives or ropes out of their reach. It is encouraged and okay to ask a person directly if they’re thinking about ending their lives. Try to calm them down and let them know that they are not alone.

Here are some hotlines you can call to seek help:

Institute of Mental Health – Tel: 6389 2222 (24-hour hotline, or seek medical help at their 24-hour Emergency Services located in their hospital)

Singapore Association of Mental Health – Tel: 1800 283 7019 (Mon - Fri: 9am - 6pm)

Samaritans of Singapore – Tel: 1-767 (24-hour hotline)

CARE Singapore – Tel: 6978 2728 (Mon - Fri: 10am - 5pm)

TOUCHline – Tel: 1800 377 2252 (Mon - Fri: 9am - 6pm)


This article was written in collaboration with kindNUS, a student-initiated mental health awareness interest group in NUS. kindNUS aims to empower a new generation of mental health activists through outreach, increase awareness and transparency of mental health issues, and improve the mental health for SG students.


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