Anxiety and depression have become common mental health concerns—especially in light of the pandemic. While these topics can be uncomfortable to discuss, taking care with your language can be a huge part of providing support to those you care about. It’s therefore worthwhile to learn how to talk about mental health as empathetically as possible.
“Open communication allows individuals the opportunity to speak about their mood and symptoms. This can help ensure that depressed or anxious individuals are safe and supported,” says Dr. Leela R. Magavi, regional medical director for Community Psychiatry. “Creating a safe place to express emotions, and reiterating the fact that help is available . . . could help save lives.”
Here are some ways to express your support in an empathetic and helpful way:
Create a sense of connection
“When supporting those with mental health issues, the most important thing is to create connection,” says psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker Erika Nelson. “Avoid any judgment or shame, and ask questions more than giving statements. We want to create relational reassurance, trust, and care.”
For example, you may reaffirm your connection by making it clear they’re important to you:
- I was thinking of you the other day and just wanted to say how glad I am we are friends.
- I’m always happy to lend an ear if you want to talk.
- I feel like you have been offline lately. Is everything OK?
Another way to make that connection clear is by asking specific questions about how you can best provide support:
- Would it be more helpful for me to just listen, or brainstorm solutions?
- Do you want to talk about X?
- Would you like me to help you schedule an appointment with a therapist?
- Would you like to join me on a weekly walk?
“It’s important to ask your loved one how they would like to be helped. Everyone has different ways of processing feelings and coping with them,” says Dr. Magavi. “If you know a friend is struggling, check in with them often, even if they may not be able to reciprocate.”
>>Read More: How to Reach Out to Someone Beyond ‘How Are You?’
Normalize their experience
Normalizing mental health can go a long way in helping those around you feel more comfortable sharing their experiences and feelings. These phrases can help show the other person that what they’re going through isn’t taboo:
- It makes sense that you’d feel that way.
- I think that’s a valid reaction to what you’re going through.
- Most people experience these struggles at some point in their lives.
If you’ve also had a mental health issue, it can also be helpful to mention that in this context. Just be careful not to shift the focus onto your experiences, says Weston Clay, a psychotherapist and licensed mental health counselor at myTherapyNYC. He recommends using phrases such as “I’ve been depressed before,” or “I’ve struggled with that, too, and I know how it can feel” to quickly make the point and keep the focus on them. Either way, avoid trying to “solve the problem.”
“Your job is not to fix them, it’s to support them,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Desiree Dickerson. “Someone with a mental illness does not need to be ‘fixed.’ They may want to feel better and find the right avenues to do that. But as a friend or family member, your role is to be there, to show up, to support them. Simply hold space, and let them know they are loved just as they are.”
Be aware of the kinds of questions you’re asking
Depression and anxiety can cause issues like decision fatigue, brain fog, and analysis paralysis. Being thoughtful about how you use open-ended (or specific) questions can help address those issues.
Nelson says that when offering emotional support, it’s a good idea to add a bit of subtle specificity to your open-ended questions:
- How are you managing since we last hung out?
- How have your panic attacks been this month?
These provide a simple framework and narrow the scope of the question in a helpful, clear way. On the other hand, when trying to provide concrete support, asking more close-ended questions can be helpful.
“People with depression and anxiety can struggle to reach out when they need support the most, and in those times it can be hard to know what they might need,” says Nelson. “Offering concrete suggestions that are within your capacity—such as going grocery shopping together . . . and coming over to help clean—not only shows more nuance in caring but can all be more helpful than asking a person simply to ‘let me know if you need anything.’”
>>Read More: Language to Protect Your Mental Health
Understand potential stressors
Navigating group settings and traversing bustling public spaces after a long period of isolation are likely to bring up feelings of overwhelm and discomfort, especially in those who have social anxiety or otherwise limited energy reserves. But there are ways to check in and help them deal.
“If you’re inviting them to a party,” says Clay, “you might say something like, ‘I know you’re not always comfortable in big groups and it has been a long time since we have done anything like this. I completely understand if you don’t feel comfortable going.’ Or if someone is telling you that they want to go out but are scared to, you can . . . let them know that you will check in with them while you’re there and, if they are uncomfortable, the two of you can leave together.”
Also, adding phrases like, ‘no response necessary’ or ‘no pressure’ at the end of an invite text can also make them feel more at ease. Setting expectations for the environment (like estimating the headcount) and asking if there’s anything they need can go a long way, too.
“If you get the sense that something is not OK, if you are worried about someone, then the kindest thing you can do is see them,” says Dr. Dickerson. “Acknowledge that you see them, and ask the question.”