How to talk to a friend about mental health


Layla Team

February 18, 2020

This blog post was written as a collaboration with Flipd. Flipd is a digital wellness app helping you find time to spend your offline moments well.

We talk to our friends about shared interests, hobbies, schools, work, relationships —all sorts of things! And yet for a lot of people broaching the topic of mental health can be difficult even with very close friends. For someone struggling with their mental health, having the support of friends is so important, but it can feel scary or even plain awkward to open up.

So how do you help a friend talk about their mental health? Here are 3 things to consider.

1. Where and when is it okay to talk about mental health?

Sometimes showing that you’re there for a friend is as simple as reaching out to chat or inviting them to hangout, grab a coffee or study together. If you think a friend is struggling with their mental health it's so important to start conversation about it.

Talking about mental health can be very vulnerable. Consider talking to a friend somewhere that is a comfortable environment for them, where privacy isn’t an issue. For some people this might mean chatting at their apartment, and for others it may be best to chat at a coffee shop or go for a walk. Stepping out of the house or away from roommates could be particularly helpful to the conversation.

2. How do you start a conversation about mental health?

So how exactly do you start a conversation and show your support? You may already know that they’re struggling, or you understand the nature of what they’re been dealing with, but it’s important not to assume you know what their experience is. Similarly, you can’t assume that your friend is going to want to talk about it either. If you try to start a conversation and they seem uncomfortable, change the subject. If they say outright that they do not want to talk about it, respect their wishes while letting them know that you’re there if they change their mind. Always let your friend set the pace for these kinds of conversations.

State your support and openness to discussing whatever is going on, while avoiding making any assumptions or cornering them. That may sound like: “Hey I’ve noticed you seem a bit stressed lately and I wanted to let you know I am here to talk about anything if you ever want to” instead of: “I’m pretty sure you’re depressed and it started with your breakup. You should do something about it!”

When a friend is ready and willing to open up and have a conversation with you, the most important thing is to listen without judgment.

3. How can you listen actively and show your engagement and support?

  • Make space for your friend to talk. Do not interrupt them, and let them set the pace. Follow their cues.
  • Pausing is okay! You don’t need to rush to answer or respond to everything they say. Doing that may mean you’re cutting them off before they are done or finished explaining.
  • Stay focused on the conversation: Show respect by not checking your phone.
  • Pay attention to body language, theirs and yours: Make sure you are showing with your body language that you are engaged and present with them. Pay attention to their body language as well, you may notice they are very uncomfortable or upset. If this is the case, you may want to check in and ask if they’re okay to keep talking, or reassure them that they only need to share what they’re comfortable with.
  • Repeat for confirmation: This can help show you’ve been listening, and give your friend a chance to clarify or correct your understanding of what they’ve shared.

Not sure how you can best support your friend?

Ask! How you like to be supported may well be different from how your friend wants to be supported. Sometimes people want to vent, sometimes they want help solving a problem and are seeking advice, and sometimes people just want validation. If someone is wanting to be heard but is not looking for advice then you jumping in with suggestions and proactive advice may feel invalidating and like judgment to them, despite your best intentions. This may mean they will be less comfortable coming to you in the future. It may feel a little weird, but asking “how can I support you in this?” can be a great help for both you!

The support of friends is so important for those struggling with their mental health, but often the support of a professional is necessary as well. On-campus counselling services, online resources, community organizations, private therapy, support groups, helplines — there’s so much support out there! If you’re comfortable doing so, you can even offer to help your friend research and identify what resources and services may be a good fit for them.

Finally, make sure to keep in mind while supporting others that it’s very important to take care of yourself as well. At the end of the day, supporting your friend is an incredible thing to do, but it’s okay to admit when you feel in over your head. If something is triggering for you to talk about, or if you have a little less to give during a harder time, make sure to check in with your own feelings too.