January 16, 2023/Mental Health

Worried About Someone’s Mental Health? How To Help

Start a conversation, gently ask questions and offer help without judgment

A person with their arm around another person's shoulder.

Our mental health affects the ways we think, feel, behave and interact with others. And it’s something that we all need to focus on, especially if we’re going through a major life change, dealing with stress or struggling with a relationship.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

While you may be keyed into your own mental health, there might be a time in your life when you’re worried about someone else’s mental health. And when you do, you may think, “I should mind my own business.”

But under the right circumstances, you can do a lot of good by reaching out, says psychiatrist Minnie Bowers-Smith, MD.

Dr. Bowers walks us through how to help a child, teenager, adult, friend or coworker who might be dealing with a mental health condition.

How to get mental health help for a family member

Whether it’s your own child, a sibling or an aunt, you may be worried about how to get mental health help for a loved one. Dr. Bowers provides some guidance, including conversation prompts.

What to say to a child or teenager

Say you notice your 16-year-old niece isn’t particularly happy. She’s doing poorly at school. She’s not interacting with people, taking care of herself or getting along with family and friends.

“When it seems like something isn’t moving in the right direction for her as a normal 16-year-old, have a conversation with her,” says Dr. Bowers. “It’s difficult to talk to teens unless they want to talk to you, so I try to tap into the here and now. If I see a tattoo, I’ll ask, ‘When did you get that tattoo, what’s it mean?’”

Eventually, you can say, “Is there anything you think you want to talk about?” or “Can I help you in any way?”

If you see scars on a young person’s wrist, if they always dress in black, if they always seem unhappy, Dr. Bowers suggests asking, “Is there any chance you might hurt someone or hurt yourself?” or “Have you had any thoughts about dying?”

“It’s better to ask than to not ask,” says Dr. Bowers. “With teens, you always want to know about suicidal thinking, to prevent harm to themselves and others.”

Or you can ask their parent to pose these questions to their child. If that doesn’t work, the parent should talk to their child’s pediatrician.

“When teens are violent toward themselves, their siblings or their parents, that demands an ER visit,” states Dr. Bowers. “If drugs or alcohol are involved, or if they overdose, go to the ER. Then, let the experts decide when to bring them home.”

What to say to an adult

The risk of suicide isn’t confined to the young. “Suicide is also a concern in older adults,” says Dr. Bowers.

Advertisement

Say your 55-year-old uncle has been laid off. He’s isolated himself, grown irritable and doesn’t bother to shave or put on clean clothes.

Midlife crises — a job loss, financial setback, health challenge and/or relationship problems — increase suicide risk, especially in men. Alcohol abuse only adds fuel to the fire.

How do you tackle this sensitive subject with the older generation? Dr. Bowers recommends a gentle, respectful approach. Start by asking how they’re doing and if they’re still able to enjoy their favorite pursuits.

“Then, ever so gently, you can ask, ‘Are you happy with what you’re able to do now or not?’ and ‘Are you feeling kind of sad?’” she suggests.

If they don’t volunteer information, you can observe if they don’t seem happy and aren’t getting around well. Ask if they’re sleeping, eating and taking care of themselves.

“Then, you can ever so gently move into, ‘It may be helpful to talk to somebody — medication can help you feel better,’” Dr. Bowers offers. Ask if they have a family doctor, then, help them make an appointment.

But if your relative admits to hoarding medication or says, “Life just doesn’t seem worth living,” take them to the ER or urgent care, or call your local suicide prevention hotline or the police.

“If you say you have a suicidal relative, you’ll be connected to the services you need,” she continues. “Large cities often have mobile crisis teams that come out to the home.”

How to get mental health help for a friend or coworker

It’s trickier talking to someone you’re not related to — like a friend whose difficult or erratic behavior has landed them in hot water at work.

Without judging, offer your concerned support. “It won’t help to discuss what they should have done or what the boss should have done,” notes Dr. Bowers. “Just say, ‘I’d like to help you stop having the troubles you’ve been having.’ Show them that you’re working with them and not against them.”

You can tell them, “I know someone who can help,” and offer the name of a doctor or counselor. But if you think the situation might escalate, get help.

“Use your judgment,” advises Dr. Bowers. “If you think the person might get angry — or if they own guns or knives, or have said they’re going to hurt someone, or slash someone’s tires, then call the police, or the security officer at work.”

Advertisement

Know your limits when it comes to offering help

Compassion is key when you’re worried about someone with mental health problems. After all, they may not even realize they have a mental health disorder.

“Pose your questions thoughtfully,” says Dr. Bowers. “Some people with serious mental illnesses may decline our help. But sometimes, we’re just not asking the right questions.”

And remember, you can’t fix their problem — only a mental health professional can. But you can get those you love going in a healthy direction by referring them to experts for help.

Community resources are useful as well. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is a free resource for those with a mental health condition and their loved ones. You can call or text the NAMI Helpline at 800.950.6264.

Self-help groups like Emotions Anonymous (a 12-step program) can also be invaluable.

Call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

You may be thinking about who to call when you’re worried about someone’s mental health.

By calling or texting 988 from anywhere in the U.S., you’ll be connected to local counselors who can help you with whatever you’re facing. They can even send a mobile response team and provide long-term support.

988 is for anyone — whether you’re feeling overwhelmed, thinking of suicide, experiencing issues with substance abuse or are worried about a friend or family.

Good mental health should be a lifelong goal. Dr. Bowers notes that we tend to think about mental health only in the midst of a crisis, but our own mental health — and the mental health of those around us — should be a lifelong concern.

“Many life events can be confusing, scary and overwhelming,” she adds. “Good mental health will see you through declining health, the loss of loved ones, natural disasters, societal turmoil and the many other challenges life can bring.”

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Oversized smartphone with social media comments, with two people feeling dejected
March 29, 2024/Mental Health
What Is Thinspo and Why Is It Dangerous?

While social media content doesn’t create eating disorders, it can easily exacerbate them

Two friends laughing together
March 26, 2024/Mental Health
No Fooling: The Very Real Health Benefits of a (Good) Prank or Joke

A pro-level laugh can release good-for-you oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins

person pulling open blue curtains to sunshine
March 4, 2024/Mental Health
Not Feeling Like Yourself Lately? How To Get Out of a Funk

Connecting with others, going for a walk or focusing on sleep quality can help more than you might realize

person speaking with healthcare provider in office
March 4, 2024/Digestive
Ulcerative Colitis and Your Mental Health

Seeking help through therapy can be an important step in improving your quality of life when you have UC

person sitting in a growing flower, as they're watering the pot from above
February 9, 2024/Mental Health
Self-Love: Why It’s Important and What You Can Do To Love Yourself

Like being your own best friend in times of trouble, self-love is an act of self-preservation

person standing on exclamation point holding up a No. 1 finger, wearing cape and mask in front of crowd
February 1, 2024/Mental Health
How To Make the Most of Your ‘Villain Era’

It’s not about embracing your dark side — it’s about showing up for yourself

Silhouette of person turned away from group of people talking
January 23, 2024/Mental Health
How the Grey Rock Method Can Protect You From Abusive People and Toxic Interactions

Like a boring ol’ grey rock, the goal is to be unresponsive and uninteresting to dissuade a harmful situation

person looking at reflection in hand-held mirror
January 22, 2024/Mental Health
9 Signs You’re Dealing With a ‘Narcissist’ (and Why That’s the Wrong Word to Use)

Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental health condition, not an insult

Trending Topics

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

woman snacking on raisins and nuts
52 Foods High In Iron

Pump up your iron intake with foods like tuna, tofu and turkey

Ad