Tips for Expressing Your Concerns With Someone About Their Mental Health

It can be a difficult experience to watch someone you care for struggling. It makes sense that you want to help but don’t know how to broach the subject. You know that the outcome of doing so can vary wildly.

They might feel relief when you reach out, or they may also recoil and push you away. There’s no promise that your words will reach them. You can, however, improve the chance that they’ll be receptive to seeing what you see. Here are three tips you can use to express your concerns with someone about their health.

1. Choose the Right Time and Place

Just like with everything in life, timing matters, and when it comes to this type of conversation, so does the place. Say the right thing at the wrong time or in the wrong place and it won’t land the same. You likely don’t want to recommend going to rehab for mental health in a busy office full of co-workers, for example. Putting a friend on the spot like that will likely ruin your chances of connecting.

Speaking of chance, don’t just leave everything up to it either. The right time and place probably won’t just magically appear, so make it appear. Reach out to the person of your concern and invite them to talk in a more secluded location. This could be in a back room at work or a corner table of a loud coffee shop. Think of places public enough not to be totally isolated but private enough to be comfortable to open up in.

Finally, choose the right time. You obviously don’t want to spring this heavy conversation on someone the moment they wake up. Or the day they have a huge interview or exam. You may need to wait a bit, but find a moment of relative quiet within the person’s life. You may also need to schedule it, again, like grabbing a coffee. Choose the right time and place to increase the chances this person will be receptive to what you have to say.

2. Choose Your Language Wisely

What if someone told you, “You’re not making good choices” or “You’ve got to get your act together?” How would you feel? Do you think you’d be open to listening to more of what they have to say? Or would your blood pressure rise, accompanied by a bevy of rational defenses of your character?

For most people, it’s the latter. People tend to go on the defensive when accusations come their way, even if they’re true. Remember, this is someone that you care about. You want to help them, so temper your approach with patience and understanding. Part of that means choosing your words wisely before you actually engage in this conversation.

In general, use “I” statements. These are statements about your perception or how you feel about your relationship with this person. Instead of saying “Your drinking is a problem,” maybe say “I feel concerned about how often I see you drinking.” These kinds of “I see” or “I feel” statements tend to go over better with people. Because they’re framed as your perspective rather than as absolute truth, they’re more likely to help you connect.

3. Provide Specific Examples

Using “I” statements can help you connect with someone who’s struggling by encouraging them to hear you out. But expressing general concerns won’t necessarily mean they’ll agree with what you have to say. That’s especially true if this person doesn’t believe they have a problem. If that’s the case, then you’ll likely need an argument prepared to convince them.

Be mindful here that preparing an argument does not mean preparing to get into an argument. You’re not trying to fight with this person; you’re trying to help them see what you see. Don’t go into this conversation trying to “win” anything. The only win will be someone in need getting help.

Again, there are no promises, but you’ll be more likely to convince someone of something with specifics. At the same time, no one wants to hear a laundry list of everything you think is wrong with them. Provide this person with anywhere from 2-5 solid examples of the issue at hand. “I feel concerned because you’ve failed all your exams since your breakup when usually you ace them,” for example. Specific examples like this help the person understand why you’re worried and recognize the issue more clearly.

Conversation Goes Two Ways

Effective communication requires active listening; every conversation is a two-way street. After you express your concerns, give the person in question an opportunity to respond. Pay attention to what they say: their feelings, perspectives, and explanations.

No matter how they respond, this is your opportunity to validate what they see. They may not be happy about what you’ve said, may feel relief you’re reaching out, or any and everything in between. Listen, really listen to what they have to say just as they allowed you to say your piece.

Remember that the goal of this conversation isn’t to convince them of something, it’s for both parties to feel heard. Because, at the end of the day, you can’t force someone to think something or force them to choose differently. How they want to move forward is up to them. What you can do is provide them with an opportunity to see what you see and change it if they so desire.