How to Offer Hope to Someone Who Needs It

Tomorrow, October 10th, is World Mental Health Day. With an estimated 1 out of every 4 people in the US to be diagnosed with a mental health condition in their lifetime, and so much stigma still attached to these diagnoses, many people stay silent about their struggles. Some fear being shunned. Some fear being perceived as a burden on others. Some are embarrassed that they will be viewed as “weak”.

And that’s not limited to mental health diagnoses – many people stay quiet when they’re struggling with other worries for the same reasons.

So, whether it’s a full diagnosis or an unrelated struggle, let’s show them they’re wrong, and they have people around them to support and accept them as they are right now. But how do we do that? By reaching out to people! Incidentally, that’s what we challenge you to do for World Mental Health Day: reach out to someone. But how?

Release the Pressure Valve!

Many of us want to reach out to others, especially during difficult times.  However, we’re often nervous to ask, sometimes for fear of getting it “wrong”. Or we fear being rude and asking about something personal. The other person might be angry and hurt. So much pressure! Let’s talk about these things.

People tell me they fear getting the conversation “wrong”, as if they are responsible for the entirety of the outcome of the conversation. This is very noble. It’s also largely irrational. A former supervisor of mine frequently asked his students: “Are you responsible for them, or are you responsible to them?” His point is that we often want to fix situations (because we care), and we take the responsibility for the entirety of situations, forgetting that there is another person involved who is responsible for their own emotions and actions. He trained us to take a mental step back and ask how much we can realistically do before we start attempting to control their responses. That’s our responsibility to people, and if we go beyond that and take ownership of their actions and emotions, we’ve crossed the line into being responsible for them.

Bearing that in mind, let’s take the pressure off the conversation when you reach out to someone. Since you can’t force them to be different or change their circumstances, there’s no pressure on you to fix the situation, whatever their challenge may be. In fact, they might end up resentful if you try. Think about it like this: your only agenda is to honestly ask how they are, respond to it with empathy, let them know someone is thinking about them, and wish them well. It is not your goal to make them change. This might look like:

  • “Hey, there. I was thinking about you the other day, realized we hadn’t talked in a while, and I wanted to check in with you and see how you’re doing. Like, for real. How have things been?”
  • “I noticed that you haven’t been as vocal on Twitter lately. Just wanted to reach out and see how you’re doing.”

Ask far as asking something personal goes, my experience is that people are generally willing to entertain personal questions if I ask permission first and make it clear that they are not obligated to answer if it makes them too uncomfortable. If they say I can, I ask. If they say they don’t want me to, I don’t. It also lets them know I want to respect their privacy and personal agency. This might be as simple as saying:

Is it okay if I ask a personal question? Please know you’re under no obligation to answer any part of this that makes you too uncomfortable. Yes? Okay. Are you doing okay right now? No? But you don’t want to get into it? Okay, that’s totally fine. I just wanted to check in and let you know someone’s thinking about you. If you want to talk, I’m willing to listen. How are things going with other stuff?

Patterns and Conversations

We have patterns to our conversations. One of the things we do is something called “phatic communication”. This is a form of communication which only serves to fill a social function. The words are irrelevant! Frequently, when we see people, the first thing we ask is, “How’s it going?” as a form of phatic communication. We’re not really asking. It’s just a greeting. We expect people to be positive and say, “Good.” Unfortunately, this leads many people with emotional struggles to believe that when people ask about them, they don’t really want to know about them; they’re just being polite.

When you reach out to someone, break that pattern! Ask them how they’re doing in a way that isn’t just a, “How’s it going?” Let them know you’re thinking about them, and you really are interested in how things are going!

Plan Your Approach

Finally, when I reach out to folks, I like to do so via text, email, or IM. I like this method for a few reasons:

  • It’s more casual, and they are less likely to feel intimidated by the approach.
  • It’s a form of communication that allows them (and me) to think about the responses before sending them, and they can respond on their own time.
  • It’s written evidence that someone cares.

The potential risk is that, since it’s in writing, my tone of voice will be lost, and emotional inquiries might be interpreted differently than I intend. They might view it as impersonal, as well. You’ll need to decide how you want to reach out, but this is how I usually do it. I’ll often add, if practical, that’d I’d like to grab coffee and listen.

Now that we’ve gone over some of the reasons people hesitate to reach out, as well as some of the ways to deal with that, is there anyone you haven’t talked to in a while or that you think might be stressed about something? It doesn’t have to be a mental health diagnosis. Let them know they’re not alone.

Also, let your friends and followers know they’re not alone either! Share your messages of hope and caring with them using the hashtag #TakeThisHope. We’ll be boosting those messages all day on our Twitter account @TakeThisOrg.