A 2021 Harvard study reveals that close relationships help people sustain stronger mental health. This seems clear and appears to state the obvious, but where people struggle is fostering and nurturing those close relationships. To cultivate strong relationships, make a habit of checking in on your friends. Some people use an outward appearance of happiness to mask their inner struggles. They could be acting happy despite feeling sad. They could be displaying strength while feeling weak. They could be acting introverted as a way of retreating and isolating. They could be coming up with new projects and ideas while feeling alone and abandoned. They could be succeeding in their career and relationship but suffering from anxiety and depression.
Jason Akinnel sat down with Jon Schlenske to discuss this topic and get his input on the best way to check in on your friends and their mental health.
Jason Akinnel: I have a friend who seems upbeat and put together all the time. Should I worry about him the same way I worry about my friend who is more solemn and withdrawn?
Jon Schlenske: Yes, absolutely. As I was scrolling the other day, an image popped up. “Check on your happy friends,” it said, and was followed by images of Chris Farley, Robin Williams, Stephen tWitch Boss, Kate Spade, Naomi Judd, Brittany Murphy, Chester Bennington and Mac Miller. I stopped scrolling and thought, this meme could also say, “Check on your strong friends. Check on your quiet friends. Check on your creative friends. Check on your successful friends. Just check on your friends!”
Remember, appearing happy is different from being happy. Your friend may put on a happy face and have a positive and cheerful demeanor that makes it seem as if he is not struggling. Mental health experts call this smiling depression, and the importance of genuinely checking in on your friend cannot be overstated. Open and sincere relationships are not based on perfectly curated words. That, “Thinking of you…” text could be the support that moves your friend from one moment to another.
Jason Akinnel: I agree. How important is it to stay in regular contact with a friend who appears to have it all together but who you suspect is struggling?
Jon Schlenske: It’s extremely important because it maintains that level of familiarity and trust. Frequent communication keeps interactions informal and makes people more likely to open up about feelings and emotions.
Jason Akinnel: How can I tell if a friend is only pretending to be happy?
Jon Schlenske: Look for signs in their day-to-day actions. Have they started to lose sleep or complain about not getting enough sleep? Do they seem tired most of the time? Have they begun missing plans and made excuses about not being able to make it?
Jason Akinnel: Important things to look for, but I also don’t want to seem intrusive. How can I carefully and respectfully let them know I care?
Jon Schlenske: There are several ways to check in on your friends. And, always remember, if they brush off your efforts, it’s okay to dig a little deeper. Through all of it, let them know you’re there for them at their best or worst. As long as you come from a loving place, chances are any sort of friend check-in will be appreciated. You can and do make a big difference just by being there.
Here are some approaches to consider:
- Challenge generic responses – if your friend or loved one gives standard responses to questions like, “How are you?” gently ask for additional information. For example, you might get the usual, “I’m okay” answer. In this case, calmly respond with, “Tell me more” to get them to continue talking. They may not speak openly about their stress. However, the fact that you instigated this conversation will show that you care and are always there to listen.
- Switch up the way you check in – you can turn a chat with a friend into a mental health check-in by simply changing the way you start the convo. Swap out the standard, “How are you?” for an open-ended question that gives your friend more room to elaborate on how they’re feeling. Try, “Tell me how you’re feeling lately,” or, “What’s been on your mind?”
- Have affirming conversations regularly – encouraging or uplifting conversations put people at ease and make them feel safe to explain their reality. Also, when you communicate like this regularly, your happy friends will know they have a support system to turn to when struggling. They’ll see that they can always be open with you about their feelings.
- Follow-up on what you hear – listen attentively during your conversations and always follow up on what your friends tell you. You can do this by asking for more details about a particular issue or offering help if they need it. Check in with your friends from time to time to see if their situation has changed or improved.
- Be an active listener – when talking to someone about mental health, it isn’t always easy being vulnerable. If a friend shares that they’re having a hard time, try not to play therapist or solve their problem. Instead, hold space for what they’re experiencing by listening to their feelings without criticizing or rushing to offer your opinion. Remember, too, that active listening is key. This means no scrolling or watching TV while a friend is opening up to you. During the conversation, you can also validate a friend’s feelings by saying something like, “I can see why you’d feel that way” or, “What you’re feeling is valid.” Afterwards, thank them for sharing with you to show that you’re taking their emotions seriously and are genuinely interested in what they have to say.
- Change your approach based on your friend – mental health check-ins don’t have to feel formal or serious, and you may want to alter your approach based on which friend you’re speaking with. Some might be receptive to open-ended questions, while other folks may respond better to being directly asked, “How’s your mental health these days?” or, “Do you need anything?” Also consider how long have you known the person you are asking? Is the person a close friend? What do you already know about them and what they are currently experiencing? How might you approach a friend so that both of you feel comfortable? Thinking about these questions will help you phrase your response. For example, processing and replying to, “I just found out my father has cancer.” will be different than your response to, “I suck. I’m not good enough. Nobody wants me around anyway.” Keep in mind that their answer may be, “Everything’s fine” even if you’re pretty sure that it is not.
Jason Akinnel: Those are fantastic suggestions. But, how do you handle it if they truly don’t want to talk?
Jon Schlenske: Great question. That is absolutely the hardest part of any of this. Remind them that you are there for them when and if they need support. Be patient. But, if you are worried about their safety, do not handle this on your own. Bring this to the attention of a counselor, a supervisor, a mental health professional or reach out to a crisis hotline. In critical situations, where you feel their life (or someone else’s life) is in danger, call 9-1-1.
Jason Akinnel: Thank you for sharing these ideas. Any final thoughts?
Jon Schlenske: Yes. Your friend may be aware they need help but may be afraid you will judge them for talking about it. Talking to someone about mental health requires emotional sensitivity as well as physical sensitivity, so be mindful as you show support. Prepare for resistance. Not all people are ready to openly share mental health struggles, so make sure you remain consistent and steady. Eventually, they will open up. And remind them how great they are. Everyone needs to hear that they are valued, and when you point out someone’s positive qualities, they will be motivated to take the necessary steps to better themselves even further.