Ruth Durkin: How to Talk to a Friend

Ruth's advice is given from her own perspective of having unhelpful comments made when she has tried to share her thoughts and emotions during periods of depression. Her alternative suggestions are excellent advice.

one person helping another up a hill

If a friend confides in you that they are feeling unwell in terms of depression, anxiety, stress or any other mental health related condition, it’s important to approach your conversation with integrity, sensitivity and respect.

Here are a few examples of responses I have had, some from close friends and family, when I’ve attempted to talk to them about my mental health (all genuine, I promise):

  • “Everyone gets down, man”
  • “Have you tried not thinking that everybody hates you?”
  • “Chin up”
  • “When you’re older you won’t have the luxury of crying in bed all day when you have a job and a family to support”
  • “Just look at the birds and the trees and be grateful for life”
  • “These self-harm wounds are only like cat scratches”
  • “What have you got to be down about?”

That last example is one that I’ve had to answer many times in personal and professional situations. It’s difficult to explain that mental health problems can strike when things are seemingly going smoothly in your life. I’ve felt that people think I’m ungrateful for my happy life when I’ve been devastatingly depressed in spite of my good fortune at certain times.

Here are my top 5 tips to ensure that your conversation is mutually respectful:

  1. Take everything they say seriously
    You should never underestimate somebody’s threat of suicide or self-harm. A friend telling you that they are even considering this should not be passed off as an idle threat. Recommend your friend rings the Samaritans to talk through their situation with someone impartial on 116123. Or refer them to your local Accident and Emergency department. Check that they are safe later the same day.
  2. Don’t laugh at or belittle their beliefs and experiences
    Just because you don’t see a situation in the same way as they are currently viewing it, doesn’t mean that their interpretation is invalid. When I had post-natal OCD I shared with a friend how terrified I felt next to a busy road that the pram and my baby were going to get run over. She said “Well that’s why you’re supposed to hold on tight to the pram.”
  3. Suggest taking part in a positive activity together
    Even if it’s something you would normally do together, I would advise against getting drunk or taking drugs with them. There’s already a lot going on in their mind and it’s unlikely that drinking or drugs would help, even if it felt like it would initially. Going to the cinema, for a walk, for a coffee – these are all ways in which you could help distract them from their state of mind, even if only a little.
  4. Listen without judgement/don’t give advice
    Give them time to speak about how they are feeling and try not to interrupt. Just nod and acknowledge what they’re saying without trying to solve all their problems or tell them that they are imagining what they are experiencing.
  5. Suggest they seek out some support such as talking therapy, self-help resources online or making an appointment with their GP
    Not all experiences are positive, but I know that many people can benefit from counselling and medication accessed through their GP. One problem can be long waiting lists. It may be worth looking for local charities who offer free or heavily subsidised talking therapies. A quick Google search of ‘self-help’ brings up a range of resources that can be used individually. There are many differing viewpoints about the use of medication, but if you think it could benefit your friend, then their GP can help. Personally, I think that medication has saved my life, but it’s not right for everyone.

The Sheffield Mental Health Guide website that Sheffield Flourish runs is a wealth of information about mental health, local services, and peer support groups. Suggest your friend goes to and clicks on ‘I NEED SUPPORT.’ Here they will find almost 300 groups and services who are ready and waiting to support people in need. Encourage them in contacting agencies and if they are apprehensive about it you could perhaps go with them the first time they attend something.

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