5 minutes read time.
Dr. David H. Demmer, Senior Clinical Psychologist
Withdrawing or pulling away from friends and family- and normal activities can be an early sign of declining mental health.
Friendship is powerful in combating mental health struggles. Being there for your friend, even when they’re pulling away, can help them pull through.
When a friend stops showing up for Friday Games Night, neglects the group chat or just flat-out ghosts your text messages, you’ll probably start to wonder what’s going on with them. Maybe you’ll even feel a bit pissed off (especially if you’ve shared some quality memes that haven’t been fully appreciated).
There can be many reasons for a friend becoming unresponsive. They could be swamped at work, feeling overwhelmed and burnt out – or maybe they just lost their phone. But withdrawing is also a telltale early sign of declining mental health. If you’re worried about a mate and think they might be struggling, here are some tips on how to get through to them.
You may notice your friend doing things like:
Any of these signs could indicate that they’re not feeling too great, even if they don’t tell you as much.
Some guys find it hard to admit when they’re struggling, and just want to ‘put on a brave face’. But having real conversations and opening up can really help boost someone’s mood. Your acknowledgement that they’re going through some tough stuff can help your friend feel more supported and less likely to isolate themselves.
It can be hard trying to engage a mate when they’re full of negative talk or don’t seem interested in chatting. But we’re all for bumbling through these awkward conversations anyway. Just letting them know you’re there for them can be a huge help.
Worried about what to say? Here are some suggestions on how to have a decent conversation.
Try to get your friend talking about what they’re going through by using open-ended questions like, “What are your days looking like?”. These sorts of questions require an answer and can’t be brushed off, so will ideally get them talking about their life and feelings.
Open questions can help you dig a little deeper than the surface level, “How are you?”, “Yeah alright” talks.
Some people can feel embarrassed or ashamed to tell their friends how they’re really feeling. They may not want to bring the mood down, or just might not want you to judge them. You can start by demonstrating that it’s okay to get vulnerable.
Saying things like, “I’ve been struggling a bit lately. How about you?” creates an open conversation and may encourage them to talk freely.
Consider asking your friend if they’ve spoken to someone about how they’re feeling. “Speaking to someone” may imply seeing a therapist, which can freak some people out. So help to normalise getting professional help – which isn’t just for people with serious, life-altering mental health issues, by the way.
You could share your own experience with seeing a therapist, or even suggest one you’ve heard good things about from a friend or family member. You don’t need to bring up terms like ‘anxiety’ or ‘depression’, even if you suspect your friend may be experiencing something like this. Instead you might use terms like ‘stressed’ or ‘too much going on’.
Listen to your friend with an open mind, but don’t be afraid to encourage action too. For example, you could offer to encourage them to find a therapist in their area or speak to their doctor about options.
Before wrapping up your conversation, suggest another catch up in future. By checking in regularly, you’ll let your friend know that they’re important and that you’re there for the long-haul.
So… your friend won’t reply to your messages or answer the phone? This can make helping them a bit more tricky. While you don’t want to be a pest, if you’re worried, you may want to ramp up your efforts.
Here are some ideas on how to handle this.
Vague plans may not turn into anything, but setting clear expectations about when you’ll call (or rock up at their house) could make it easier for your friend to prepare themselves for a conversation.
Reiterating the message that you’re there for them may be all it takes. Your friend may need to feel safe and unjudged to truly open up to you.
It may even be worth telling your friend that you’re worried about them. They could be so busy with juggling work and family life that they aren’t aware you’re worried.
While getting your friend to talk is ideal, there could be other ways you can step in and help. Sending them some groceries or offering to pick the kids up from daycare could show that you’re thinking of them and are really willing to go out of your way.
If you’re concerned that your friend could be suicidal, don’t be afraid to ask them upfront. Research shows that asking someone directly if they are thinking about suicide will not put the idea in their head or push them towards it. It may be the question that saves their life. This can be hard, but sometimes we need to face the hard conversations to keep our friends safe. If they’re still not responding, you might consider contacting someone else in their family, your friend’s doctor or a mental health crisis service.
Genuine friends are a rare breed. They keep us grounded, help us gain perspective, support us in navigating life’s struggles, and tease us for our terrible haircuts.
Mental health struggles can sometimes make us want to hide away and deprive ourselves of good friends. But friendships are often what help people get out of a funk.
If your friend is intent on isolating themselves, remember that this is a part of what they’re going through. People who are feeling ‘off’ can display strange behaviour, so don’t take it personally – and don’t give up.
A few more things to keep in mind: