What to say (and what not to say) to someone living with a mental illness.

Compassionate people make their support known

My dad always says that when a crisis hits, most people walk away. It’s the people who walk towards the pain who really matter.

I’d get that advice tattooed on my heart if I could.

It’s the single most important thing you can do for someone who’s struggling with mental health issues: Walk towards them. Too many people get pain-shy, skulk away and find excuses to exit stage left from their distressed friend’s life. Compassionate people make their support known.

But once you’ve picked up the phone, or dropped round for an impromptu coffee, or sent your potentially distressed friend a sweet SMS, what do you actually say to someone who’s living with a mental illness? And what should you avoid saying or doing?

Just as an FYI, you should know that this post is sponsored by mindhealthconnect. But all opinions expressed by the author are 100 per cent authentic and written in their own words.

Not knowing what to do and say is the most powerful thing keeping good people from behaving sensitively around someone who is depressed or anxious.

To help — because friendship at the right time can make all the difference in the world to someone drowning — here’s a helpful list of DO’s and DON’T’s. Store this in the compassion department of your brain because mental illness will touch so many people in this lifetime, if you don’t have a friend in need right now, you will.

DO gently broach the topic that you’re concerned about their mental health.

DON’T be aggressive or judgmental.

Do stay in regular contact: a weekly SMS to check in is ok!

DO stay in regular contact, whether that’s a daily or weekly SMS just to check in, a phone call, a sweet email, or a link on Facebook you think they’d like.

DON’T say anything that resembles “Snap out of it” or “Pull yourself together” or “Cheer up”.

DO acknowledge that they’re feeling sad or awful.

DON’T pretend to know exactly what it’s like. It’s OK to say “I can only imagine how you feel.”

DO ask questions. Demonstrating that you care and you’re interested is a really powerful way to support someone.

DON’T be their only therapist. If you think someone needs immediate help, consult a doctor.

DO get support yourself. If you think you might need the support too, get it.


DON’T point out that other people are worse off than they are. So no “I know someone much crazier than you” or “Could be worse, you could be a starving kid in Africa.”

DO be available to listen, always.

DON’T make fun of anyone’s illness. They might want to make fun of themselves — comic relief is a coping mechanism for some people — but it will hurt coming from you.

DO talk about other things. Don’t reduce your relationship to the topic of mental health, so talk about yourself, life, your memories, your future, TV shows you like, whatever.

Don’t peer pressure them into going out.

DON’T peer pressure them into going out.

DO invite them out with you regularly, and tell other friends to do so as well. Even if they decline your invitation, it will mean a lot that it came at all.

DON’T treat mental illness like a weakness or a flaw.

DO acknowledge the amount of bravery and strength it’s taking them to get through, and how much you admire that.

DON’T use words like “psycho” or “crazy”.

DO cook meals, drop round with snacks, and offer practical help like paying bills or doing the grocery shopping.

DON’T get angry or annoyed or frustrated. Or if you do, take those feelings elsewhere if they’re not constructive.

DO stay informed. Read as much as you can, access information online, ask a GP so you know what they’re going through.

DON’T panic and avoid your friend.

DO refer back to this list if you need a refresher on how to behave around someone you love who is struggling with their mental health.

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live with a mental health issue, take a look at these illustrations:

Have you ever helped someone with a mental illness, is there anything you would add to this list?

mindhealthconnect is the easy way to find trusted mental health and wellbeing resources, support and services online; so you can help yourself or someone that you care about. mindhealthconnect is mobile friendly, available anytime, private and confidential, and is supported by the Australian Federal Government.

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