What to say to a friend who’s struggling with their mental health

Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Talking to and supporting a friend or family member who is struggling with their mental health can be challenging – but it’s also incredibly important.

‘Sometimes venting or talking about how and what they are feeling can make it a little bit better, even if just temporarily,’ explains Chloe Ward Technician at Smart TMS, the UK’s leading mental health clinic specialising in Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. ‘The long-term positive effects from asking “do you need to talk?” will be that they will know you are there for them and that they will feel supported.’

Starting the conversation can be half of the battle – so we asked Chloe to share some key phrases to avoid, and what you should say instead. Because sometimes, the littlest words make the biggest difference.

what to say to someone struggling with mental health
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What not to say (and why)

‘There are certain things not to say if your friend comes to you with and says that they are suffering with their mental health. Your reaction could really help or hinder their progress,’ says Chloe. ‘The lines that I would suggest avoiding in this situation are:

‘Get yourself together’

Depression, for example, is not something you can simply put a cast on and a few weeks later it has healed. Mental conditions are not someone’s fault and this statement implies that it is self-induced. It may also deepen the shame that they have if they’re struggling to come to terms with the fact they might have a mental illness.

‘I get it, I have bad days too’

Whilst this seems like an attempt to build a connection and make how they’re feeling more relatable, this type of statement actually minimises the pain that they’re suffering and makes it sound as though their current mental state is trivial.

‘You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself’

If someone is struggling to verbalise any negative or hard to deal with feelings then this kind of statement will make them feel as though they are complaining and a burden to you. Throw away comments like this suggest that you’re not taking their emotions seriously – as though it is something that they can simply ‘get over’.

‘What have you got to be down about, you have everything a person could want, a family, a job, a home’

What’s important to remember here is that mental illness is not a choice. A person can have everything that would make someone else happy, but it makes no difference to how they feel – they are still feeling mentally unwell and this statement is unsupportive. A person may be successful on the outside, but no one knows what is happening on the inside.

‘Everything is going to be fine’

How do you know it is? Aside from the fact that this statement isn’t based on anything tangible, someone who is suffering from a mental health condition may struggle to see past the next hour. Asking them to look ahead is something that they may struggle to perceive.

‘We should catch up sometime’

Connection and consistency are important to someone who is struggling. These throwaway statements should not be used as they suggest that you may not mean it. Instead plan a time and a date and something definitive instead.

what to say to someone struggling with mental health
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What to say instead

‘Are you okay?’

Simple but effective. It may be that no one has asked that simple question for a while and if you follow this up with “is there anything I can do to help?”, they may feel safe enough to begin the conversation.

‘Let’s have a night in’

By not suggesting that they need to get out more, it will allow them to approach their mental health in a step-by-step way. Instead, suggest staying in with them and do something that they will enjoy. It’s also a good opportunity to start a conversation and be there to listen whilst they share their feelings.

‘Tell me about how you’re feeling’

Be empathetic but not patronising. They don’t want to feel like they’re in a therapy session but by encouraging communication, they’ll hopefully feel like you’re a trustworthy ear.

‘Give me a call if you ever need to chat – day or night’

Finish your chat with them by reasserting the fact that you are there to chat whenever they need to. Then, make sure that you are actually available to talk when they do reach out. It will take them a lot of courage to pick up the phone and say that they’re struggling.

‘Can I cook you dinner tonight?’

Little things go a long way. A simple gesture such as making them dinner will mean a lot to them and reassure them that you are looking out for their wellbeing.

‘You are not in this alone’

Instead of saying that ‘there is always someone who is worse off’ which will make them feel inferior, try comforting them by saying that you will get through this together. A strong support network is key.

If you are concerned about someone you know, it is very important to encourage them to get professional help such as contacting their GP or NHS on 111. As a friend, you yourself can call a crisis line for advice about the best way to support your friend or loved one and enquire about referrals. Samaritans: 116 123. Mind: 0300 123 3393.