Checking in On Your Friends (When? Why? How?!)
Fall is coming, and with it, a therapist’s “busy” season. Why? Well, the fall and winter seasons are a bit of a mental health nightmare for many people — shorter days and less light can worsen depression, going back to school can produce anxiety for students and parents alike, holidays and family events can trigger all sorts of uncomfortable emotions, and finances can sometimes get tight as the holiday season approaches. So this year, let’s prepare early, by checking in on your friends frequently.
What does it mean to “check in” on your friends?
In any given year 1 in 5 people will struggle with a mental health issue according to CMHA— that means that someone (possibly multiple someone’s!) in your social circle isn’t “okay”, and that things might get worse for them as the fall and winter months approach. To check in on your friends can simply be a text message or phone call: “Hey, just wanted to let you know I was thinking of you, and see how you’re doing!” Or “Morning, it’s been a while, how’s life been treating you?” These gentle invitations let someone know you’re there for them, and care about their wellness and what’s going on in their life.
When should I be checking in?
1. You haven’t heard from them in a while. Has your friend dropped off the map? Yeah, maybe they’re busy with work - or maybe they don’t have the energy (or are embarrassed) to reach out and let you know they need support.
2. They’re acting unusual. Has your friend seemed moody or withdrawn? Maybe they’re getting into arguments or seem irritable? You could consider approaching them with a conversation starter like “Hey, I noticed you seem a bit down, are you doing okay?”
3. They’re sending signals. Has your friend been posting vague but concerning statements on social media, such as “another awful day” or “so sick of everything”? This is a surefire sign that they need someone to check-in with them, and perhaps offer some options for support.
4. They’re drinking or “partying” a lot. Have you noticed that your friend seems to be drinking a lot, or using substances? This might be the person who drinks more than everyone else at an event, or might mention “needing a drink” after a long day (or every day). Changes in drinking and substance use can often indicate (or lead to) troubles with your friend’s mental health.
5. You just know something’s up. Maybe you know that something traumatic happened to them a little while ago, or that they’ve struggled in the past - and maybe you see some of the signs above. You have a gut feeling, and your gut isn’t usually wrong. If you have a nagging sense that your friend isn’t doing well, trust your gut and check in on them.
What to avoid when checking in!
When you’re checking in with your friends, try not to:
1. Become a therapist. If your friend discloses that they are struggling with suicidal thoughts, violence, trauma, and other serious mental health concerns, don’t attempt to assume the burden of their safety, or feel you have to be available at all hours to be their on-call therapist! It can cause stress on your own mental health, and your friend probably needs more comprehensive professional care than you can offer. Provide support to your friend while offering options for getting help: “Man, this is a bit out of my league but it sounds like you could really use some support - have you thought about chatting with a therapist?”
2. Offer advice. It is often not helpful to give advice when someone is struggling unless they ask for it. It can sometimes feel patronizing if you seem to have all the “answers” to your friend’s problems, and you might come across as not fully understanding the gravity or complexity of the situation. Rather, show that you are listening, and take your friend’s lead on if there’s anything you can do to be helpful: “It sounds like things are really awful for you right now, is there anything I can do to help?”
3. One-up their pain. Sometimes we think it might be helpful to share a story of a time we went through a similar thing in order to comfort a friend— you might want to resist that urge. This sharing can come across as “one upping” your friend’s situation, and actually makes the conversation about you instead of them. It is more helpful to empathize in more general ways “I’ve been there too buddy, this is really hard isn’t it?”
4. Make accusations or judgements. You’re coming from a place of concern for your friend, so pick your words carefully in order to communicate that. “Your drinking is out of control” comes across as much more judgmental than “Hey, are you doing okay? I don’t usually see you drink this much.” Remember, a friend might choose not to accept your support if it sounds like an attack or judgement.
5. Ignore a dangerous situation. If your friend shares thoughts of hurting themselves or someone else, they need to connect with a professional. Again, you are not a therapist, and in situations where you fear for the safety of your friend or someone else, it is very important to get professional support. “Friend, some of the things you’re saying right now are pretty scary and I’m worried about your safety. Are you open to getting some help right now?”. If they say “yes” that’s great— assist them in calling a local hotline or attending a crisis walk-in or hospital emergency department. If they say no, trust your gut. If you fear any person is at imminent risk or harm, call 911.
Finally, the most important aspect of checking in on your friends:
Your own mental health comes first.
You are probably reading this post because you want to better support your friends, and you’re wonderful for reading up on how to do that— but please remember that “you can’t fill someone else’s cup if your own cup is empty”. In order to offer support to others, you need to be taking care of yourself. And you know what? Sometimes you might not have the capacity to check in on others, and maybe you’ll be the one who needs checking-in on. That’s okay!
You don’t have to run yourself ragged caring for the people in your life, but I hope the above advice can help you be better equipped for those days when you are feeling strong and well, and can offer to be a support to someone who needs it.
Don’t forget, if you’re looking to connect yourself or a friend with a therapist in Woodstock, Ontario - give me a call at (226) 503-2212 or book online today.