Supporting Others

If this is a medical emergency, or if a person is at risk of harming themselves or others, please call 911, or contact the Campus Special Constable Service (519) 888-4911, ext 22222.

Supporting others

Most of us want to support those we care about, however supporting others can feel awkward. It often means having uncomfortable conversations. It can be difficult to know how to provide effective and meaningful support, or useful information that assists the person in accessing help.

You should not take on the role of counsellor or try to diagnose the person. You can provide the greatest support by remaining in the friend role, providing understanding, and creating a safe space. Just being in "their corner" helps a great deal.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to having conversations when people are struggling to cope, below are some resources and best practices that might help.

A good starting point is understanding the following steps:

  1. Recognize the indicators of mental illness.
  2. Respond to the individual in a way that is appropriate to the situation at hand and the existing relationship you have with them.
  3. Refer the individual to the appropriate resources so they can access the services available.

How NOT to respond to a mental health disclosure

Unfortunately, less than half the people who feel they are struggling with a mental health concern seek treatment. And 2 out of 3 people with a mental health concern suffer alone and in silence. This video from The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) highlights some of the common responses to people with mental health concerns. These are great examples of how not to respond when someone is trying to open a conversation about their mental health concerns.

Remote video URL

Common Signs of Distress

An important part of supporting others is knowing what to what for you so you can recognize the signs of distress. Seize the Awkward lists these common "Signs to Watch Out For":

  • They don't feel like hanging out as much
  • They've gotten negative about life
  • They talk about feeling hopeless
  • Their mind seems to be somewhere else
  • They're not acting like themselves and are more irritable than usual
  • They're taking more drugs or drinking more
  • They are so anxious that they can't relax
  • They are taking more risks than usual
  • They are harming themselves

It is often easier to identify signs of struggle or distress in others than it is to see them in ourselves. It  is helpful  to review this list periodically as part of our regular self-checks. For additional signs and symptoms, see our Types of mental health support and our Mental Health Self-screening pages.

Starting the Conversation

Many people don't really feel comfortable talking about mental health and mental illness because:
  • They don't know what to say
  • They don't want to say the wrong thing
When people don't know what to say, they often say nothing. It helps to have some conversation starters at the ready. There are several good examples of conversation starters on SeizetheAwkwardBe ThereRecognize, Respond, Refer, and Mind Your Mind.

One of the first ways to respond is to show concern.

Be There provides five 'golden rules' for supporting someone who you're concerned about:

  • Say what you see
  • Show you care
  • Hear them out
  • Know your role
  • Connect to help

Examples of conversation starters

There isn't one, right way to start a conversation. Below are some suggestions to get you started. You can adapt  the  wording  so the suggestions feel  more natural for you.

  • "I've noticed you've been down lately. What's going on?"
  • "I haven't heard you laugh in a while. Is everything OK?"
  • "I'm worried about you and I'd like to know what's up so I can help. Can we talk?"
  • "Is there anything you want to talk about?"
  • "Your face is telling me you could use a good talk. Would you like to talk?"
Notice how these conversation starters end by asking the person if they would like to talk? It's important to ask if person would like to talk  so  the control rests with the other person, not with you. Each of us has the right  to decide for ourselves what, when, and to  whom we wish to share.So, while it's very good to offer to listen, it's not good to force someone to accept your offer.

Responding to mental health disclosures

It takes a great deal of courage to disclose a mental health concern. When someone trusts us enough to share their situation with us, it is important to respond in a way that shows respect. It is important to preserve their dignity and uphold confidentiality. An inappropriate response, whether unintentional or not, can cause someone to shut down and avoid seeking help. Responding effectively includes knowing what to say and do as well as knowing what not to say and do. It means both knowing when not to say anything, and how to respond in a way that shows respect to the other person. If you are comfortable doing so, meet in a private place where you won’t be overheard or interrupted.
Here are some examples of how to respond when someone tells you about their mental health problem:
  • "Thank you for telling me. I’m sorry it’s so hard right now."
  • "I'm so glad you told me. I’ve been concerned about you."
  • "I really care about how you’re doing. Thank you for telling me."
  • "I’m here and I want to help. Thank you for telling me."
  • "Thank you for telling me. What’s one thing I can do to help?"

SeizetheAwkward offers this advice when someone discloses their mental health concern:

  • Let them know that this won't change how you feel about them.
  • Ask them if they've seen a doctor.
  • Keep it casual. Relax: think of it is a chill session not a therapy session.
  • Listen up. Let them take the lead.
  • Avoid offering advice or trying to fix their problem.
  • Let them know it's OK to feel the way they do.
  • Make yourself available. Be the friend they can rely on.
  • Ask open-ended questions. Help them to talk, not just say "yes" or "no".
  • Let them open up at their own speed.
  • Don't demand answers or force them to say anything they're not ready to.
  • Encourage them to talk to an expert.
  • Tell them you won't ever judge them.

Additional strategies include expressing your concern in a positive tone and kindly point out and concerns you have. Ensure you let the person know about the different options to get help, however, respect the person's choices. Mental health is a personal journey, and we all travel at our own pace.

Toxic positivity

When those we care about are in pain, it is only natural that we would want to make them feel better. It is easy to respond to others with the same words that would make us feel better. The desire to convey hope in the situations and belief in the individual is understandable and even noble. Unfortunately, sometimes meeting adversity with positivity can feel dismissive and even patronizing to the person who is struggling.
Toxic positivity is mindset that refuses to acknowledge times of difficulty, feelings of sadness or anger, or the dire implications of a situation. Toxic positivity is a "good vibes only" approach to life--no matter what the situation. Toxic positivity suggests that a person's problems would get better if they just "think positively" about them. While often intended to be helpful, toxic positivity can have the opposite impact because it lacks empathy and often dismisses or minimizes the persons' problems or distress. Responses like the ones listed below can shut down the conversation because they communicate that the listener is uninterested in, or uncomfortable, talking about unpleasant emotions. Sometimes we (unintentionally) express toxic positivity as a way to reduce our own discomfort or the feelings of helplessness we experience when someone shares their difficulties with us.
Some examples of toxic positivity responses are:
  • "Everything will be fine, it will work itself out."
  • "You'll be okay. things will get better."
  • "Just think positively."
  • "Just be strong, you'll get through this."
  • "You've been through worse" or "it could be worse."
  • "Your life is so great. Just focus on all the good things you have."

While reframing negative situations, looking for meaning or value in a difficult experience, challenging thought distortions, and practicing gratitude are all effective approaches and strategies for coping and managing well-being, however counsellors know that most people can't jump right to these processes. The first step is simply to acknowledge where the person is and have empathy and compassion for what the person is experiencing. Instead of rushing to make someone feel better, just listen empathetically.

With empathetic listening, we are "other directed" and put the other person's feelings before ourselves. We inquire about how the person if feeling, instead of projecting our own feelings and ideas onto the other person. We imagine the experience from the perspective of the other person, not how we would feel if it was happening to us. We also listen to understand, free from judgement and the desire to reach-agreement, fix, change, or protect the person.

Dr. Marius Pickering identifies characteristics of empathetic listening. For more information and suggestions see Communicating and Listening Non-Judgmentally. Tools for Dealing with Mental Health Issues in the Workplace.

Referring others to resources

Once you have established that the person you are supporting would like to connect with supports or resources, determine if the individual needs urgent, crisis support (immediate danger), or non-urgent support (can wait a couple of days).

Our Types of Mental Health Support page has information on how to determine which type of support is needed. You can  also find information on the Types of Mental Health Conditions, and the Types of Mental Health Practitioners.

For individuals outside of Ontario, we have a limited list of National and Provincial & Provincial Crisis Lines. We also have a limited list of International Crisis Lines for  those outside Canada.

Additional Information

Additional information on how support others can  be found on the Campus Wellness Steps to Take to Respond to a Person in Distress , the Campus Wellness How to Support a Student, the FoE Supporting and Referring Students, and the Responding to Disclosures of Sexual  Violence pages.