Leanna Stockard, MA, LMFT

Have you ever had a friend or family member open up to you about their mental health? Did you find yourself unsure of what to say or how to respond to them due to your lack of experience or knowledge of mental health? While mental health awareness continues to grow and stigmas continue to be challenged, many people do not know what to say or do when they are faced head-on with someone they care for experiencing mental health struggles. If you relate to this, this blog will contain basic examples of behaviors to avoid with someone who’s struggling.

Don’t: Avoid the Topic

If someone has opened up to you about their mental health or if you are noticing someone struggling, you should not avoid talking about it. If a person has already opened up to you, and you avoid the topic again, it can make them feel dismissed and potentially embarrassed for opening up about it. Avoiding the topic can continue the stigma that we should not be talking openly about mental health.

Don’t: Be Dismissive

Treat someone’s mental health like you would treat someone’s physical health. We often empathize when someone shares with us that they have a migraine, or a sprained ankle. Do not say to someone struggling to “get over it” or just “try harder to feel better.” This dismissiveness can make someone feel worse at their attempts and not feel comfortable opening up to you again.

Don’t: Criticize Their Attempts at Getting Better

Coping skills for mental health are not one-size-fits-all, and it is important not to criticize someone’s attempts at getting better. They may be trying to find what is best for them, and what you think is best may not be what’s best for them. The only situation in which this would be different is if they are engaging in destructive behaviors such as excessive drinking or drugs.

Don’t: Be Sympathetic

This one might be surprising to some, because we often think sympathy is helpful. While sympathy typically comes from a place of trying to make things better, we could potentially be being dismissive. According to Brene Brown’s video “Empathy versus Sympathy,” sympathetic responses drive disconnection between the two people having a conversation.

What To Do

Instead of being sympathetic, I would recommend practicing empathy. Empathy communicates to the person you are talking to that while you may not be experiencing what they are going through, you are there for them, and they are not alone. Sympathetic responses may frequently begin with the phrase “at least.” Sympathy drives disconnection because we are not taking the attempt to actually understand their experience, but instead, trying to get them to feel better. However, Brene Brown says it best: “Rarely, if ever, does a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”

If you find yourself not sure how to be empathic or how to respond to someone in your life who is struggling with their mental health, it may be helpful to connect with a therapist. Contact Symmetry Counseling today to get matched with one of our talented clinicians.