“How are you?” 

We all hear it a dozen times every day. But, it’s likely that our answer never deviates far from the usual “Fine thanks, how about you?”. 

At times, it can seem like we’re in a never-ending conversational loop, saying the same hardwired response rather than how we really feel.  

Because how do you respond when you’re not okay? How do you tell your friend that you’ve been in a dark place for a while now or that your anxiety is spiralling out of control? 

One in four of us will experience mental health difficulties in our lives. Yet, research from the mental health charity Time to Change found that over three-quarters of us (78%) would tell friends and family we’re fine, even if we were struggling with a mental health problem. 

So, let’s say that you sense something’s up with a friend or a loved one. Maybe they’ve become more withdrawn and are drinking more than they usually do. Or maybe something just seems off. How do you check in on them? How do you sweep aside these pre-programmed responses and find out what’s really going on?

Here are just a few tips to help you start the conversation….

Look for signs of distress

Sometimes it’s not hard to tell that a friend is going through a rough time. Maybe they’ve just been through a devastating breakup, a chronic illness is flaring up, or they’ve just lost a loved one. With this sort of stress on their plate, you may already suspect (or know) that they’re not in a good place.

But, other times, it’s not so obvious… 

There are other telltale signs you can look out for though. Keep an eye out for noticeable changes in their demeanour or appearance. For instance, maybe they’ve fallen off the grid and aren’t keeping in touch with their friends. Or perhaps, they’re looking more dishevelled and tired than usual. If something seems out of the ordinary, check in. 

Time it right

There’s a time and a place for this kind of conversation. In a perfect world, you might stash away your devices, brew a cup of tea and create a cosy spot where your friend could feel comfortable enough to open up. But we’re still in the throes of lockdown, so this idyllic situation may not be feasible just yet. Nonetheless, there are still some ways you can put your friend at ease, even if you’re checking in virtually. Pick a time when they can chat without distractions such as work or childcare. And, if you’re meeting in real-life, pick a spot that’s away from big crowds. 

Make sure you’re ready

It takes a lot of guts to share your innermost thoughts – and it can feel particularly exposing if they’re dark or disturbing. With this in mind, it’s important that you’re in the right headspace to start this conversation. After all, when you’re asking someone to be vulnerable you want to make sure you’re present in the conversation.

Ask twice 

Admitting you aren’t okay is tough. Really tough. And so it’s understandable that it may be difficult for someone to open up straight away.

If you suspect a friend, family member or colleague is struggling, asking twice could make all the difference. Simply nudge them again. By asking something as simple as ‘are you sure you’re okay?’, it shows that you’re genuinely there for them and willing to lend a listening ear.

Listen carefully

We’ve all been there. We’ve poured our heart out to someone, told them our worries and fears and they’ve awkwardly scrambled to find the right words to solve our problems.

But sometimes things aren’t fixable. 

Sometimes there’s no magic potion or quick fix that can make it all better, and nothing you could say could ever really erase the hurt they feel. 

You don’t have to have all the answers. So don’t ramble. Make sure you’re really listening to what they’re saying. Because just being there for them could be all the help they need…

Speak with care 

This is a sensitive conversation so it’s best to tread carefully. Think about what you’re going to say. No one likes to be interrogated and you don’t want to blurt out something condescending or critical. Plus, you’ll want to stay clear of any cringey cliches. Instead, why not say something along the lines of “You know I care about you so much… And I’ve noticed you’ve not been yourself lately.” 

Offer help

Sometimes it’s less about what you say and more about what you do. So, if your friend is in a dark place and words aren’t enough, why not ask if there’s anything practical you can do to help? If they’re grieving and aren’t eating well, you could offer to cook a homemade dinner. Or, if a coworker is burnt out and overwhelmed, you could offer to take on a job to alleviate their workload. In other instances though, you may not be equipped to help – and that’s okay. If it feels like it’s beyond your scope, you could even help them find a therapist. Sometimes the best way to help is to guide them towards someone who can.

Share your story 

“Something’s wrong with me. No one else has thoughts like these. I’ll never get better….” The most insidious part of dealing with mental health problems is how they make us feel so alone, like no one else could ever really understand what we’re going through. 

But we’re never truly alone.

Mental health is a subject that touches all of our lives. It’s likely you, or someone you know, has experienced mental health problems, whether its anxiety and depression or schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Sometimes, hearing someone else’s story can be all it takes to show you that it’ll pass. That other people just like you have been through similar – and they came through the other side. 

If you’ve faced similar mental health problems, why not consider sharing your experience? Or, if you’ve gone to therapy, you could explain how it’s helped you? The more they understand what it’s about, the more likely they are to embrace it with an open heart and an open mind. 

Remind them how much you care

Above all else, it’s important to remind the person that you’re checking in because you care. If they don’t feel comfortable opening up just yet, respect their decision. But be on hand in case they change their mind. And reassure them that you’re only asking from a place of concern. 

We might worry that we’re prying or reading too much into things. But trust your gut. If you know something seems off with a friend or loved one, take a leap and check in with them. At worst, you’re being over cautious. But, who knows, it could just be the nudge they need to get help.