When the phone buzzed, my heart filled with warmth. With all the news alerts and junk text messages constantly passing through our smartphones, “warm-hearted” is a pretty rare thing to feel from a text notification.
I was going through a rough patch, and the buzzing phone was a message from a friend. She had noticed something was up, and she was just reaching out to express concern and tell me she cared.
These small moments of love, friendship, and concern from people we care about can be life-saving. I mean that literally: Mental health professionals have identified social support and outreach as key in recovery for people at risk of suicide. Even when the stakes aren’t so high, support from loved ones can help us heal and get support in any situation, from workplace troubles to unsafe home or relationship situations.
But can reaching out do more harm than help? While social support is key in getting people the care they need to weather tough times, not all attention is created equal. From invasive questions to unqualified mental health advice, here’s when making someone else’s mental health your business is healthy — and when it becomes overbearing.
It’s Healthy to Express Concern
Contemporary social science has confirmed what our cultural wisdom knew all along: Happiness isn’t the result of having immaculate genes, or a superpowered career, or a stereotypically attractive body. It’s about the warmth and strength of our relationships with other people.
When it comes to mental health, these bonds can keep us afloat. Research shows that people with supportive communities are less likely to experience depression or anxiety, and are more likely to stick with recovery goals. Loneliness, meanwhile, takes a toll on both our physical and mental health, and can even increase our health risks as we age.
The Best Ways to Reach Out
So how can we reach out? There are some scenarios in which expressing concern or support for a loved one is not only appropriate, it might make all the difference for a loved one in a dangerous situations.
Open with concern
If you notice a friend or loved one seems to be depressed, “down,” or struggling, it’s definitely healthy and helpful to reach out. While reaching out can feel awkward, Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW, recommends opening a conversation with a simple expression of concern, like “I’ve noticed you’ve been having a hard time. It might be helpful to talk about it.” Offering to help that loved one access therapy can also go a long way.
Offer help if their situation is potentially dangerous
If you worry your loved one may be experiencing domestic violence, reaching out shows them they’re valuable and deserve happiness. You can also offer material support, like a safe home to stay in or a ride to a doctor’s appointment. This can help your loved one stay safe and plan their exit from a harmful relationship.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers resources for supporting a loved one who is being abused. You can also call the Hotline to talk through how to reach out to a friend you’re concerned about.
Suggest additional resources if more support is necessary, especially with suicide risk
If you worry that your loved one may be suicidal, reaching out can save their life. If your loved one talks about wanting to kill themselves, says they feel hopeless, or begins engaging in very risky or reckless behavior, among other signs, they may be at risk.
You can reach out directly but kindly, express concern about their wellbeing, and point them to resources like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also call the Lifeline if you’re unsure of how to help. Finally, if you feel that your friend is immediate danger, you should seek emergency support.
How to Respect Mental Health Boundaries
While reaching out can be incredibly important, it is possible to be overbearing — even violating — in the way you express concern.
We’re all in the process of learning how to better be genuinely caring and sensitive about mental health and illness, so we may mess up at some point. However, we have a responsibility to reach out to others in the most respectful way possible, and to avoid talking or acting in ways that further stigmatize mental illness.
Examine your motivations
When reaching out, it’s also important to consider your motivations.
Are you genuinely concerned about this person’s wellbeing, or are you asking out of lurid curiosity? Do you view your loved one as an equal and valuable person worthy of support, or do you look down on them or stereotype them as “needy” or “crazy” for going through a tough time? Are you prepared to respect their privacy, or will you gossip about their intimate experiences to other people?
Offering support should be a genuine act of friendship to someone you view as an inherent equal. We all go through difficult times and need support, so needing help or struggling doesn’t make your loved one any less valuable or worthy of respect.
Leave mental health advice to professionals
Finally, it’s important to recognize when you’re simply not qualified to give advice. We can always offer our loved ones an open ear and heart when they need support, but if we’re not trained mental health professionals, we’re not qualified to give medical advice.
Instead, we can support our friends in accessing professional mental health support.
Remember to Care for Yourself
One of the biggest lies our self-reliant society tells is that we should be able to handle things alone. While independence is important, nobody — not me, not you, not your coworker who seems to have it all together — can go it alone. This is true for the loved ones we reach out to support, but it’s also true for us.
It’s important to recognize and respect people’s boundaries, and that should include our own. If we don’t respect our own needs, we may experience caregiver burnout. And while empathy is important, becoming overly involved in someone else’s struggle or taking the entire weight of their problems onto our shoulders is unhealthy for ourselves and our loved ones alike. It denies us the opportunity to build sustainable networks of social support.
It’s okay to set boundaries for how much you can or want to support someone else, and to take the time and space you need for yourself.
Genuine Support is Based in Love and Respect
Ultimately, offering genuine support means respecting others as full and complete people with their own lives, needs, and nuances, not seeing others as “fixer uppers” or as burdens.
This means respecting our loved ones’ boundaries, and our own. When we commit to treating other people as full and valuable human beings, that warm buzz of concern we send into our loved ones’ text message inboxes will find its way back to us.