Although no one is immune from mental health issues, it can be hard to admit when life isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. So, if your bullshit detector pings because a loved one insists they’re “fine” when their actions say otherwise, what do you do?
“It's a tough spot,” clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Suzanne Klein, Ph.D., tells SELF. You might feel tempted to dig until you uncover the truth so you can help, but at the same time, you want to respect their privacy and autonomy. The good news is that there are ways to do both and also to increase the likelihood of this conversation going as smoothly as possible. Here are expert-approved tips for having a caring, respectful mental health check-in with a loved one who doesn’t seem “fine” at all.
1. First, ask yourself, “Am I approaching this from a place of concern or judgment?”
Before you begin to think about what you're going to say, do some self-reflection, clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D., tells SELF. If you’re nervous about having this conversation, ask yourself why. Are you scared to talk about something so intimate? (This is a completely legit worry.) Are you worried about their safety and wellbeing? Or are you mainly worried about what it will mean (for them or for you) if they are in fact struggling with a mental health issue?
If it’s the latter, that might point to you having internalized some societal stigma about mental health. Many people grow up learning that mental illness should be a secret, but try to remind yourself that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, and it’s not a choice. Feeling deep down that mental illness is shameful will make it that much harder to have a supportive conversation with your loved one.
2. Decide if you’re going with a blunt conversation opener or if you’re going to be more delicate about it.
The best way to broach the subject depends on the person. If they typically prefer a straight shooter, Howes suggests something like, “Hey, it looks like you’ve been pretty down lately. You’re avoiding my calls and always seem withdrawn when we’re with friends. I know you’ve said you’re fine, but really, is anything going on? How can I help?” That might open the floodgates.
If they usually shy away from confrontation, Howes suggests something more general, like, “Things are so stressful these days. How have you been dealing with life?”
3. Use observations about their behavior to explain why you’re worried.
During your conversation, Howes recommends gently pointing out observations about your loved one’s behavior rather than outright saying something like, “I think you have depression.” Although there’s nothing wrong with having depression, diagnosing and labeling someone isn’t your job.
Instead, mention whatever it is that you’ve noticed—it seems like they are seeing friends less often, drinking way more, skipping out on a hobby they used to love, or other possible signs of anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues. Then ask, “What do you think that's about?”
4. Bring this up when you’re both feeling relatively relaxed.
It may seem obvious that you shouldn’t start this conversation when tensions are running high, but those can be the hardest times to make level-headed decisions.
For example, if you’re mad because your friend texted to bail on your housewarming party—as they have every other time you’ve tried to see them lately—you might feel angry and annoyed but also have a deeper worry that something is going on. As long as your friend doesn’t seem in danger of harming themselves or others, consider taking a beat and starting the conversation after the anger and annoyance have receded, ideally in person. (We’ll explain what to do if they are a risk to themselves or others below.) “If it's in heat of the moment ... and you load on top of that, that could be overwhelming, and you'll get resistance,” Howes says.
5. Tell them you’re coming from a place of care, not judgment.
“Let them know you love them ... and you're worried about them, but not in a 'holier than thou way' or like you know what's best for them,” says Klein. She suggests something like, “You're really important to me. I see that you are suffering, and you don’t need to suffer alone or in silence. You can get help with this.” You can even straight up tell them that you’re not judging them, you just want to make sure they’re as happy and healthy as possible.