How to Ask for Help

Asking for help when you’re struggling with your mental health can feel scary and challenging.  Even if you’re getting professional help for mental health, you may find it difficult to talk with friends and loved ones about what you’re going through or how they can support you.

There are lots of reasons people may hesitate to ask for help when they’re struggling with their mental health.  We may have absorbed some of the stigma around mental health that still unfortunately exists in some places.  We may fear that our loved ones won’t understand or that they’ll judge us.  Maybe we haven’t seen any examples in our lives of people we respect who have spoken openly about their mental health.  Depression and anxiety can also distort our thoughts and make us more likely to believe others don’t care about us or are judging us harshly.  Depression and anxiety might even make us believe that we don’t deserve help - something that’s never true.

All of this can mean it’s frightening to think about telling our loved ones about what we’re going through or asking for their help.  However, isolation tends to worsen mental health concerns, while support from family, friends, or a partner can be crucial for working through them.  If you’re struggling, it’s worth thinking about sharing with someone in your circle and building your support network of people rooting for you.  

A lot of people genuinely want to help but aren’t sure how.  They may be afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and making things worse or they might just not have the knowledge or experience to guide them.  Often when people aren’t sure what to say, they’ll default to not saying anything at all.  (You see this in situations of death/loss and terminal illness as well as mental health - it’s something our culture could definitely stand to improve on.) 

When you’re in a tough place mentally, this can feel really invalidating, like the people around you don’t understand or care about what you’re going through (and depression and anxiety can convince you this is true even when it’s not).  Bottom line, unless you have good reason to think a loved one isn’t up to the task of having these conversations, consider the possibility that they may simply not know how to and may need some guidance.

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Struggling with your mental health can make it harder to think clearly, which presents a bit of a catch-22 when it comes to reaching out for help.  With even a little bit of preparation, though, you can make your experience asking for support that much better and more likely to yield positive results.

Try taking a moment to think about what you’d like the other person to do to support you.  You might not know exactly, and your preferences might change over time, but your goal is to find a place to start the conversation right now, not set a plan in stone.  Some questions you might ask yourself are:

  • Do I want this person to offer solutions?  Or would I prefer they simply listen to what I’m going through?
  • Do I want this person to check in regularly to see how I’m doing?  Or would I prefer to reach out when I need specific help?
  • Do I want this person to encourage me to leave the house or engage in specific activities that will help me?  (For example, going out to coffee with a friend, attending a social event, taking a shower every day)
  • Do I want this person to drive me to a meeting with a doctor/psychiatrist/therapist to make it easier for me to go through with the appointment?
  • Would it be helpful for this person to accompany me on other errands that are tough for me when I’m struggling? (For example, going grocery shopping or picking up a prescription)
  • Do I want this person to touch or hug me when I’m having a hard time?  Or do I prefer not to be touched?
  • Are there things that would be unhelpful or frustrating for this person to do?  (For example, going into problem-solving mode when you need them just to listen and validate what you’re going through)

Armed with some knowledge about your needs, you’re now in a better position to effectively ask for help.

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How you bring up what you’re going through and how much you share is ultimately up to you.  Here are some examples to get you started thinking about what you’d like to say:

  • “I’ve been wanting to share something with you but it’s kind of hard for me to talk about.  Would you mind just hearing me out for a bit so I can get my thoughts out before you say anything?"
  • “Lately I’ve been having a hard time.  I’ve been [feeling really down/having panic attacks/struggling with disordered eating/etc].  I wanted to tell you a little bit about it and ask for some support as I work through this stuff.”
  • “I recently started seeing a therapist to work through some things I’ve been struggling with.  I think it’s going to help, but it would be really helpful to have your support as I go through this.  I’d like to tell you some more about what’s been going on.”
  • “Something happened to me awhile ago and I’m still having a hard time with it.  It’s really tough for me to talk about but I think it would help to share a little bit with you.”
  • “I’ve been doing some research lately and I think I might be experiencing [depression/anxiety/panic attacks/etc].”
  • “I’ve been worried about my [mood/eating habits/etc] and I think I might need some help as I sort through this.  One thing that would really help is….”
  • “If I get upset while we’re talking about this, it would be helpful if you could….”
  • “One thing that would really help me is if you would….”

If you need more inspiration the non-profit Bring Change to Mind has an interactive online Talk Tool that generates suggestions for how to talk about various mental health concerns with different people in your life.  (You might want to poke around their website as well - they have some great videos and other resources all centered around their mission of ending the stigma surrounding mental illness.)

It may be scary to think about reaching out, but building a strong, healthy support network is a crucial step you can take to care for your mental health.  It starts with just one person who can hear you out and let you know you’re not alone.  A lot of people will step up to the task if they have some guidelines for how to help - just like you would want to do if you knew a friend was struggling.  

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