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Mental health challenges can be difficult to diagnose and symptoms often go unnoticed by those affected. Often, those affected don’t know to seek help, so it is important to be observant and empathetic towards the attitudes and behaviours of those around us. What do you do when you realise that someone around you is showing symptoms of a mental illness, but you don’t know how to reach out to them?

-Rachael Abiriba


It’s never fun to be talked down to. It’s less fun to have to feel like your independence, autonomy, or abilities are doubted. It’s even more destabilising to feel ‘different’ or discriminated against. But people living with mental health challenges have to deal with these feelings and more, almost daily. So, when you ask people outright if they’re okay or give them unsolicited advice, there is a big chance that this is exactly what you’re doing.

“Are you okay?”, seems like a harmless question but for someone who isn’t okay, and may be struggling to articulate why, it can easily become inconsiderate and uncomfortable. I asked some of my best friends how they felt about being asked that question, and the replies were mostly negative. It would seem most people hate being asked that question, regardless of how it is they are feeling.

“Are you okay?” is asked so often, the reply is automatic, “I am fine”. When we ask, are we really asking to know the truth, or just waiting for the expected response so that we can get on with our day?

Most of us find it difficult to say how we are, even when we are struggling with a problem. Our unwillingness to reach out even becomes more evident when we need support the most. This is particularly true for those who find themselves in a state that makes them both unwilling but also unable to reach out. So how do we breach that barrier and ask loved ones if they are having a difficult time? Here are some tips:


Ask Before You Help

People suffering from mental health challenges are very sensitive. Noticing their symptoms, doesn’t give you permission to take over their lives in an attempt to help them (even if it comes from a place of love).

They deserve to be treated with respect. Ask if you can help before offering assistance. They probably feel helpless so guide them to see their symptoms clearly and feel like they are in charge of all decision-making.


Be Sensitive About Physical Contact

They may be sensitive about their personal space, so close physical proximity, even with the intention to assist, can be off-putting and lead to a rejection of your help. Avoid making any physical contact if they don’t clearly understand your intentions or are not yet comfortable around you.


Don’t Make Assumptions

People living with certain types of mental illnesses are the best judge of what they can or cannot do. Don’t make decisions for them about their abilities and capabilities. That’s the easiest way to have a door closed in your face.


Don’t Ask If They’re Okay

If there’s anything we’ve learnt so far, it’s not to ask this question directly. Ask questions that reassure them that they’re still the person they’ve always been, and you still see them that way; that they’re still in charge of their lives but you care, and are ready to support them, if and when they need it. Questions and statements like:

“Let’s catch up soon. Like really catch up. What does your schedule look like this week?”

“You’ve always been really good at ___. Can I pick your brain for a project I’ve been working on?”

“If you ever need anything, let me know! You were there for me when _____. Please let me return the favour.”


I am not a doctor, nor can I say with any authority that these suggestions are foolproof.

But what I do know, is that a personal approach conveys a better sense of genuine and specific care, than an empty, “Are you okay?”

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