You Want To Be A Good Friend If Someone Is Struggling With Their Mental Health, But It’s Easy To Say The Wrong Thing

There are so many voices telling us right now, as men, to talk and share our feelings. This becomes even more important when we think a friend might be suffering from issues with their mental health. And it is good to talk, but if you don’t cover this kind of ground very often you can easily end up saying something less than helpful, so we’ve asked an expert to reveal the pitfalls...

DON’T Say These Things:

‘Pull yourself together’
Sometimes the hardest thing to do, as a man, is admitting to a weakness or vulnerability, so when we see it in our friends, our first instinct can be to counter it with a show of strength. Unfortunately, the mind doesn’t work like that. ‘Depression, for example, is not something you can simply put a cast on and a few weeks later it has healed,’ Chloe Ward, mental health technician at Smart TMS tells RSNG.

‘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 coming to terms with the fact that they may have a mental illness.’

‘What’s important to remember is that mental illness is not a choice’

‘I get it – I have bad days too’
Trying to show you empathise is all well and good, but your friend probably knows you well enough to see if you were genuinely struggling with your mental health, so at best this will come off as patronising. ‘Whilst it 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,’ says Ward.

‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself’
This kind of ‘tough love’ statement can be a well-meant attempt to get someone to ‘snap out of it’, but it’s more likely to make them snap back at you, or just shut down completely. ‘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 being a burden to you. Throwaway comments like this suggest that you’re not taking their emotions seriously – as though it’s something that they can simply ‘get over’,’ warns Ward.

‘You have everything anyone could want’
Mental illness can strike anyone, even if they have a great family, wife, job, home or whatever. ‘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 that’s irregardless – they are still feeling mentally unwell and this statement is unsupportive,’ says Ward. A person may be successful on the outside, but no one knows what is happening on the inside, unless they tell someone.

‘Everything is going to be fine’
This is the go-to calming phrase for every movie disaster scenario ever. Hearing it as big monsters crush cities is fairly unconvincing, and this goes for double in real life. ‘How do you know it is?’ asks Ward. ‘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.’

‘Connection and consistency is important to someone who is struggling’

‘We should catch up sometime’
This is a pretty crappy thing to say to any friend, because it basically means ‘sometime when I’m not too busy doing stuff that’s actually fun.’ When talking to a friend you think may be suffering, be very wary of using glib phrases. ‘Connection and consistency is 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,’ suggests Ward.

DO Say These Things 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,’ says Ward.

‘You’re not in this alone’
‘Instead of saying “there’s always someone who is worse off,” which will make him feel inferior, try comforting him by saying that you will get through this together. A strong support network is key.’

‘Give me a call if you want 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.’

‘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.’

WHAT NEXT? Watch Denny Morrison explain why comparing major depression to having a bad day is like stacking a paper cut up beside an amputation…

Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations.

Follow the writer @mattfitnessray