09 Sep 2021

How to Help Someone Withdrawing from Friends and Family

5 minutes read time.

Key Points

  • Withdrawing or pulling away from friends and family- and normal activities can be an early sign of declining mental health.

  • Trying to talk to someone who’s withdrawn can be tough – but you can help them by asking open questions, sharing your own struggles, connecting them with support and checking in regularly.

  • 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.

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Signs that someone is struggling or beginning to withdraw

You may notice your friend doing things like:

  • Making negative comments.
  • Trying to end the conversation or making excuses to leave.
  • Turning serious matters into a joke (for example, laughing about having lost their job and having no cash).
  • Lacking energy and motivation.
  • Seeming frustrated or angry.
  • Not seeming their normal self.
  • Avoiding friends, family and normal activities.
  • Drinking or taking drugs more than usual.

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.

Man having a conversation with a friend he's concerned about

What to say to someone who’s withdrawing due to stress or mental health problems

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.

Ask open-ended questions

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.

Share your own struggles

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.

Suggest Support

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’.

Offer practical guidance

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.

Check back in

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.

Woman walking in a street with a man who's withdrawing

Helping a friend who won’t respond

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.

Set specific times to catch up

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.

Let them know you’re there to listen

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.

Let them know you’re worried

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.

Help in other ways

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.

Ask direct questions

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.

Remember that friendship is powerful

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:

  • A little goes a long way
    Don’t underestimate the power of a simple text message or friendly voice memo on Instagram. That may be all it takes to perk your friend up and prompt them to reach out.
  • Regular check-ins can make all the difference
    Show your mate that they’re on your mind by checking in regularly. Whether you make this a regular jog, a brunch, gaming session, or just shoot them a message once in a while – it shows that you haven’t forgotten about them and their struggles.
  • You’re a sounding board, not a therapist
    You don’t need to offer solutions to your friend’s problems, necessarily. Just be there to listen and bounce ideas off. Acknowledge their feelings and encourage them to seek help if they need it.

    If you’re worried that your friend may have depression or anxiety, know that you’re already being a great support just by refusing to ‘accept’ their withdrawn behaviour. Showing them that you’re there, you won’t judge, and you’ll support them is huge. And over time, along with some professional support, you’ll hopefully see them move past the desire to withdraw and feel good once again.
I wish all this was over. It’s so messed up.Yeah, it's dragging on for sure. What are your days looking like?

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