“How’s it going?”

On a given day, you might ask this question dozens of times and get the same response: “I’m OK, how are you?”

But what would you do if the person you were asking said they weren’t OK?

What To Do When a Friend Reaches Out

When someone you care about is facing a crisis, you want to do whatever it takes to help. But we don’t always know the right thing to do or say. And sometimes we let our fear of making the wrong choice keep us from reaching out.

If a friend, family member, neighbor or coworker tells you they’re struggling with a mental health (aka brain health) concern, the best thing you can do is to follow up with them right away. Don’t wait for things to get better or worse! Acknowledge their feelings, express empathy, and listen with an open mind.

Here’s how:

  • Listen to what they’ve just told you, take a moment to reflect, and repeat back what you heard to check for understanding. For example, you might say something like: “I’m hearing that you’re having trouble at work and that it’s causing you to feel anxious. Am I getting that right?”

Avoid jumping to conclusions (“You’re over-reacting”), assuming a cause (“Maybe it was something you said”) or implying an easy solution exists (“Go for a run and you’ll forget all about it”). Remember, you’re there to listen and empathize — not make a diagnosis or solve their problems.

  • Set a time to talk uninterrupted. If a friend says something concerning but you don’t have time to chat, ask to catch up with them later. You don’t have to just sit there and talk — participating in a shared activity can put you at ease, making it easier to strike up a serious conversation. Instead of meeting at your home, go for a walk or grab a bite to eat. Talk in a place where you both feel comfortable and where there are minimal distractions.

It’s OK to put the conversation on pause if you need to. The goal is to be there for your friend in the long run — not to wrap everything up in a single conversation. If you need to take a break, tell your friend, “I need to step away, but this is important and I want us to keep talking. Can we meet again this weekend?”

  • Let your friend take the conversation at their own pace and give them the chance to open up without prying. Even when a situation is complicated, you don’t have to cover every detail at once. Take things one step at a time, and you’ll walk away with a better understanding.
  • Unless your friend asks for it directly, resist the urge to give advice. That said, you can always share a kind word or open up about a time when you were struggling. If you’ve had a similar experience to your friend’s, it can be helpful to share it. Try to focus on how you overcame that difficulty but be aware that what worked for you may not work for them. Offer your story as a reason to hope and be optimistic — not as a guidebook they need to follow.
  • On a similar note, don’t compare what your friend is going through to another person’s pain or situation. Reminding people that “someone always has it worse” will only dismiss your friend’s feelings.
  • Reassure your friend that they matter to you and that you care about what’s happening in their life. It’s OK if the words feel a little awkward or clumsy — you don’t need to deliver an Oscar-winning monologue to get through to them. Just be yourself and show you care.
  • Don’t assume what your friend needs or wants — ask them directly how you can help. Some people just need a caring voice to listen without judgement. For others, help with daily responsibilities like babysitting or making dinner can be a huge relief. Be realistic about what you can help with and only make promises you can follow up with.

You can also ask your friend if they have considered speaking to a professional, or if they want help finding a provider close to home. Sometimes, people don’t know what their treatment options are and appreciate a point in the right direction.

  • Remind your friend that their mental health IS their health. It can have a real, physical impact on the brain and body. There’s no shame in going to a doctor for a broken leg. And there’s no shame in seeing one to address feelings, thoughts and behaviors that get in the way of daily life. Sometimes it’s helpful to frame mental health as “brain health,” which emphasizes that there is physical basis for a diagnosis like depression.

No matter what brain health crisis your friend is facing, there’s treatment that can help. Everyone’s path to wellness and recovery is unique. But your support — in combination with professional treatment — will give them the best chance to get on the path towards feeling better.

Visit brainhealthtips.org to find licensed mental health professionals in Eastern Iowa, as well as more tips like these that help you and your loved ones start important conversations around their wellbeing.