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The Do’s and Don’t of Asking Someone if They’re Okay

By: Maheshwari Rajesh


Conversation is deceptively complicated, a dance we partake in every day, calling and responding to each other's movements. It's an art, each stroke able to make or break a masterpiece.


It's delicate but powerful; timing is everything.


We've all had moments where everything is perfect–the gorgeous weather, the palpable good vibes, the people you love steadying your heart. On those days, conversation just flows like cool lemonade on a sweltering day.


But that's only a pocket of happiness in the vast void of life.


When it comes to talking about mental health, we can't wait for the perfect moment to arise, an instant where everyone is open and accepting. The world isn't like that. There will never be a quintessential moment when we want one, so this when we have to take a plunge into the deep end of the pool by asking someone if they are alright—even when we know they aren't. My job is to make sure that when you dive, you'll stay afloat.


Simply put, I'll teach you how to talk. 


That means you first need to have a good reason for showing concern. Essentially, it's imperative you know the signs and symptoms of a mental illness so you can recognize them in others. If something strikes you as oddly familiar in someone you know, then look further into their symptoms—it's always good to be prepared. These will vary based on the mental disorder, but there are some common indications: severe changes in mood and behaviors, abnormal wear of long pants and sleeves (to cover signs of self-harm such as burning or cutting), and withdrawal from social activities or appearing gloomy for more than two weeks.


Phew. That’s a lot to keep track of, right? More often than not, it's the small differences– the changes you wouldn't notice unless you were paying attention. If you have noticed any of the symptoms previously mentioned, you’ve already proven that you deeply care about someone–now all you have to do is address your concerns.


But wait. We aren’t done with symptoms yet.


I’ve gone over common ones, but signs could also be disorder-specific. For example, when facing anxiety, a person may be more pale, tense, and irritable than usual. Anxiety can cause many different issues like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and panic attacks. This shows that symptoms for many illnesses will overlap, which makes it critical that you don’t diagnose someone yourself. However, if you’re concerned about them, take your loved one to a professional who can determine what illness the person of interest may or may not have. If you know there is a problem, don’t wait as you might lose valuable time to help them.


Okay, I promise I’m done with indicators. Now to the actual conversation.


The best piece of advice I can give you is to be brave. Even though discussing sensitive topics is tough, don’t let your fear get ahead of you. Talking to someone is extremely necessary in figuring out what’s going on.


Here’s how you do that: According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), you need to “focus on being nonjudgmental, compassionate and understanding.” They suggest using ‘I’ (instead of ‘you’) comments to start the conversation. Some examples they give are, “I’ve noticed that you haven’t been acting like yourself lately. Is something going on?” or “It makes me afraid to hear you talking like this. Let’s talk to someone about it”. These kinds of conversation starters can help break the ice and make your mission go much smoother.


It really goes without saying but remember to be nice–it never hurt anyone. Please don’t dismiss someone’s pain by saying things like, “toughen up” or “snap out of it”. It will only push your friend away—the exact opposite of your goal. To most, these tête-à-têtes  are foreign territory, so the best thing to do is just listen. I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum and for someone to share their story–for what may be the first time–can be hard. I was so scared of being shunned and judged by my scars, that I lived in a shell, until someone like you helped me finally face my demons. Later on, I was in a similar position as you—my friend was hurting, but I wasn’t sure how to approach them. Want to know what I did? I offered my arm in solidarity and support, and after a while they took it. The only reason they did it is because she trusted me. That trust is the backbone to this whole process; allow your friend to confide in you without worry and the results will amaze you. 


Giving your loved one your full attention is also critical. You need to show that you truly care about them and their wellbeing. The Mental Health Foundation has listed eight tips for discussing mental health with others, which includes setting time aside with no distractions, keeping questions open-ended, listening carefully to what they tell you, and offering them help and resources for seeking professional advice. This also means that you need to try being a helping hand and making them feel loved and special—which is important because it’s especially hard for your friends to accept those feelings when they are struggling.


Occasionally, even with all this, things don’t always go to plan. Don’t beat yourself up; Remember, whether they accept the hand you reached out to them or not, your efforts were never wasted. You tried, and that speaks wonders. NAMI notes that “...your friend might not be ready to talk about what they’re going through or simply may not want your help right now.” It’s essential that you understand, in most instances, you shouldn’t take it personally if a friend closes off to you. Sometimes, your loved one might have difficulty talking to you because they are concerned that they might be burdening or hurting you.


Just give them space.


Tell them that you are there for them and they can come to you. Sometimes even sharing a story of how you, or someone you know (if they are okay with you telling their story) went through something similar can also help them open up. As the saying goes, “You have to give trust to get trust”. 


The  method of using your story to help your friend open up is my favorite, because even if your loved one didn’t share their tale back, they know that they aren’t alone. You are still accomplishing your goal—they now feel less lonely and they know someone’s got their back. 


Still feeling intimidated? Don’t be. No one said you have to do this alone. 


If you’re scared of helping your friend by yourself, get assistance from someone you—and the person of interest—trusts. This could be another friend, family member, faith-based leader, or a coach. Make sure the person of interest is okay with it first as you don’t want it to appear as if you are cornering them. That being said, if it’s life-threatening, take action by getting a trusted authority figure and calling 911.


No matter what you do, try to be supportive—whether emotionally or by promoting a healthy lifestyle. But you also need to take care of yourself. 


Here-to-Help brings up a valid point in stating, “Taking care of an ill family member or friend can be stressful. Remember that you need emotional support, too. Consider joining a support group for family members of people with mental illness.” It’s vital that you are mentally stable and well before you can offer assistance to others. Aiding people closest to you is important, but don’t overexert yourself.


If you want to help someone, help yourself first. 


Be in a secure position mentally, then start thinking about offering your help to others–otherwise you could get hurt. In other words, please put on your oxygen mask first before assisting the person beside you. You’ll thank yourself later.


No matter how many times we practice it, conversation is still one of the most complicated things in existence, especially when involving mental health. It takes a tremendous amount of courage and bravery to tell someone that they need guidance or help, but doing so could make all the difference in your loved one’s recovery. You might get frustrated, hurt, and feel like nothing you are saying or doing is helping, but showing your support and being there for someone makes you a true friend and an empathetic person—two rare finds in life.



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Sources


“How to Help a Friend.” NAMI, www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Teens-Young-Adults/How-to-Help-a-Friend. 


“How to Support Someone with a Mental Health Problem.” Mental Health Foundation, 7 Feb. 2020, www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/supporting-someone-mental-health-problem. 


“Supporting a Friend or Family Member with a Mental Illness.” Supporting a Friend or Family Member with a Mental Illness | Here to Help, www.heretohelp.bc.ca/infosheet/supporting-a-friend-or-family-member-with-a-mental-illness. 



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