What To Say To A Friend Who’s Having A Hard Time, According To Crisis Counselors
Sometimes life is pretty tough — and it can strike those around us hard. It can be tricky to know what to say to a friend who's having a hard time when you want to express your love and support. You can fall back on folk wisdom, like "every cloud has a silver lining," but there's a risk you'll seem condescending or out-of-touch. Fortunately, experts have identified some of the best language to use when you have a conversation with a struggling friend or family member, to make sure that you're being sensitive to their needs while also communicating clearly.
Struggles can be caused by many things and manifest in many ways, from mood swings to insomnia to social isolation to depression. It's important that you tailor these phrases to suit your friend and your relationship; if you talk entirely in memes and Rihanna .gifs, now is not the time to start talking like Charles Dickens. And just because someone isn't in "crisis" doesn't mean they can't use a helping hand. You might not have all the answers, but you can, at least, be there.
Here are phrases to use when you're chatting with somebody who's having a hard time right now.
1. "I Want To Check In"
A study from Crisis Text Line, which answers millions of texts from struggling people every year, showed that language does matter when you're talking to somebody who's finding life very difficult. They found that certain phrases that centered "expressions of care" and foreground the person asking the question — like "I want to check in on you" — were more effective than other approaches. The less successful phrases? They tended to be blunt ("Are you feeling XYZ?"), or couch their questions in anxious or apologetic language ("I'm sorry, but...").
2. "Can I Do XYZ For You?"
Grief counselor Jill Cohen told Prevention in 2017 that offering to do something concrete, rather than asking "what can I do," is a way to help that's both significant and practical — without making the person think of anything for you to do. Is their struggle causing disruption in their lives in ways that you can identify and fix? Whether it's picking them up for work, helping with their kids, making them food, cleaning their house, or some other practical help, there's no limit to what can be helpful. But it's important to ask first, and to respect their boundaries if they say no.
3. "You're Super Important To Me"
The National Alliance on Mental Health suggests that talking about your feelings towards them, and how much they mean to you, can be meaningful, particularly if you'd like to help them to talk to a doctor or a therapist, or seek other outside support. "Try to use your relationship as leverage, in a loving way. Whether you’re their sibling, friend, spouse or relative, tell them how important your relationship with them is to you," they suggest. This makes your concern feel less invasive, and more like an act of care.
4. "You're Not Weak"
Regardless of what your friend is going through right now — parenting, relationship issues, money worries, mental health problems — they will likely need reassurance that it's not "just them." Experts at VeryWell Mind recommend that you tell people who are struggling that they're not "weak or defective." This particularly applies if they're struggling due to depression, but it's also a good message in general for people struggling to lift their heads above water.
5. "Would You Like A Distraction?"
Mental health advocate Sam Dylan Finch advised Sian Ferguson at Everyday Feminism in 2017 that distraction can be a very good tool for helping somebody in a bad place. "Ask someone if they need you to distract them. Make tangible suggestions, like: 'Hey! Would you like to watch a movie together? Let’s go on a walk! Let’s craft together. Let’s go visit the animal shelter,'" Ferguson wrote. Your friend may leap at the opportunity to talk about or do something else, and appreciate the fact that you're trying to make them focus on fun and having a good time for a brief moment.
6. "Take Your Time"
Experts at mental health organization Heads Together note that when somebody is struggling, "seemingly easy tasks can feel overwhelming. Everyday things, such as taking a shower or cooking might seem too much to deal with, especially early in the day." They note that it's helpful to not create too much time pressure on struggling friends to do things now. This sentiment also applies more generally; they don't need to feel better immediately. Let them know it's OK to take time to heal and feel more on top of things.
If you don't know what to say, these phrases, tailored to your particular situation, are helpful for expressing love and care in a conversation with a struggling friend. Chocolate's good, too.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.