The World Health Organization reported a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide after the first year of the pandemic, and in the US, nearly 2 in 5 adults experienced a mental health issue in 2020. Suffice it to say, we are collectively not OK. Regardless of how common mental health issues are, knowing how to support a colleague, friend, or family member who is suffering is tough.
Even when you’re determined to show somebody you care, it can be tricky to figure out the best way to offer emotional encouragement or tangible help. Every mental health condition—and every person dealing with one—is different, so there’s no hard-and-fast rule about what someone needs. Following these basic principles, recommended by mental health providers and people who’ve gone through mental illness themselves, can be a good start.
At a loss for how to express your care? Here are 8 ways to support someone with their mental health.
Ask how you can be most supportive
Unless they are in a crisis, it’s best not to assume what someone needs, says Yevgenia Tsveleva, a psychiatric registered nurse care coordinator at Minded. For example, one person might want advice about how to stave off anxiety, while someone else might appreciate a listening ear. Either way: Your loved one will probably feel most cared for when you tailor your support to their actual needs and wants.
Don’t push them to seek treatment if they’re not ready
Even if it’s clear to you someone would benefit from therapy or medication, Tseleva says mental health care is usually more effective when someone chooses it for themselves—even if that means the process takes longer than you’d prefer. “It should always be a person’s decision to seek help, and we should support them regardless of if they choose not to take medication or talk to a therapist right away,” she says.
Celebrate every small win
Both depression and anxiety can cause symptoms that interfere with people’s ability to function in everyday life. For example, someone with depression might have a hard time getting out of bed to participate in activities, and a person with anxiety might avoid situations that ramp up their fears. If your struggling loved one makes an effort to overcome their symptoms—even if it’s just making breakfast in the morning or taking a shower—it’s important to celebrate that victory with them.
“This is a way of positively reinforcing and affirming the feelings of a person who’s currently struggling,” says Sam Nabil, CEO and lead therapist of Naya Clinics. “It also serves as a daily reminder that they are supported in every way.”
Try not to judge or dismiss their experience
There’s already so much stigma around mental illness that can prevent people from speaking up about their symptoms or seeking the support they need to thrive. As a caring person in your loved one’s life, you have an important opportunity to destigmatize whatever they’re struggling with (which may encourage them to ask for help).
When you’re talking to someone who is struggling, Nabil suggests asking questions about their feelings rather than making assumptions. When they share something with you, be validating and supportive, even if you don’t understand. Well-meaning advice or questioning could be perceived as judgmental and cause the person to clam up or get defensive.
Don’t jump into problem-solving mode
Alexander Hardy, a mental health first-aid instructor and creative director who has struggled with depression and anxiety, says his best advice is to listen without attempting to fix the person with a mental health condition. Instead, offer space to share and try your hardest not to tell them what to do or what they should have done. Trying to problem solve can send a message that the person is, well, a problem, which probably won’t improve their mindset.
Instead, focus on just being with the person you care about. “Navigating mental health challenges while still trying to show up in the world can be an isolating, shame-filled experience, and knowing that I can be open about the low, embarrassing, dark moments with someone who cares about me makes a big difference,” Hardy says.
Educate yourself on the condition
Never experienced depression or anxiety yourself? Psychotherapist Laura Sgro says it can be helpful to do some research on whatever the other person is experiencing. Whether you grab a book on the topic or just read up on mental health conditions online, it’ll be easier to empathize and support someone when you try to understand what they’re going through. “Educating yourself can help you approach your loved one with compassion rather than frustration when their behavior doesn’t necessarily make sense to you,” Sgro says. Plus, you can look for signs of worsening symptoms and suggest more support if needed.
Normalize their experience
Normalizing the experience of anxiety or depression is the first step to busting stigmas that can prevent people from asking for help. If you’ve ever struggled with either, it may help your loved one to know they’re not the only one. “It can be very helpful to have someone understand what it’s like to feel what you’re going through and offer a simple but supportive ‘me too,’” says psychotherapist Lauren Hepler.
Remember you’re not alone
As important as supporting a loved one through mental health struggles is, it can be tiring. If you’ve been in the trenches with someone close to you, Tsevleva recommends reaching out for your own support. That can mean chatting with another friend or family member or seeking out a psychotherapist. The important thing is to prioritize self-care. You’ll be so much more helpful to the person you’re trying to support if you’re in a good place yourself.
If you or someone you know is in a mental health crisis or experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide, call 911 or contact the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.