5 minutes read time.
Dr. David H. Demmer, Senior Clinical Psychologist
Talking about mental health can be difficult under any circumstances, especially when the other person has their guard up. It’s important to meet them where they are.
If your friend or family member is evasive or defensive when you ask how they’re doing, they may not be ready to talk yet.
There are several things you can do (and a few things you shouldn’t do) to help someone lower their guard and open up about their mental health.
Talking about mental health can be difficult. Talking about it with someone who has their guard up? Impossible, right?
Not necessarily. Even if your friend or family member is reluctant to open up about their mental health struggles, there are still ways you can show up for them. Here are some tips you can follow to make it easier for someone to share – when they’re ready.
You can open the door – and keep it open for them. But you can’t make them walk through it. That’s up to the other person. Ultimately, your friend must decide when they’re ready to let their guard down and ask for help. So remember: open the door, but don’t try to push them through it.
Maybe they’ve had traumatising experiences when opening up about their mental health in the past. Maybe they’ve had loved ones who weren’t supportive or understanding. They might be afraid of being invalidated or rejected if they’re ‘too open’ about their struggles. Or maybe they’re hesitant because of the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Be gentle and validating to help them feel safe.
It can be hard talking about mental health issues, especially for men. Your friend may not know where to begin or how to talk about what they’re feeling. Modelling vulnerable conversation by sharing some of your experience may help them to feel more comfortable talking about theirs.
Bottom line: you need to meet them where they’re at. If they’re not ready to take another step with you yet, keep showing up for them – but don’t force it.
If you strike up a conversation about mental health with someone and you get one of these responses, it may be a sign they’re feeling guarded:
If they give an evasive answer when you ask how they’re really doing. For example, if they say ‘fine’ and quickly change the subject.
If they get defensive or irritable when you express a concern for their well-being.
If they give any of these specific responses when pressed:
You can’t make someone share before they’re ready, and you shouldn’t try. That’s not good for them or your relationship. But there are a few things you can do (and a few things to avoid doing) to keep the door open for when they are ready to talk.
If we’re talking about a casual friend – an acquaintance from work or someone you grab a drink with every now and then – it may not be your place to press the issue. As licensed therapist Ann Ranieri told the Harvard Business Review, ‘Part of the decision on how to handle it is understanding your relationship.’
If it’s a close relationship, however – say, your best mate or a relative you spend lots of time with – then you might be in a better position to say something.
Even then, you may not get anywhere on the first try. If that’s the case for you, ask yourself if there’s anyone else that they might feel comfortable opening up to. Don’t assume you’re the only one who can help them. And don’t take it personally if they don’t pour their heart out to you. Some people feel more comfortable sharing certain aspects of their life with specific people. There can be lots of reasons for that, none of which have anything to do with your value as a friend.
The most important thing is helping them get the support they need, not who plays what role in that.
Unless you’re a licensed therapist, you shouldn’t attempt to diagnose your friend’s mental health issues. (Even then, it’s best if you leave it to someone who isn’t quite as personally invested.)
Your job is to show up, listen, encourage and support. You don’t have to ‘fix it’ for them. By all means, encourage your mate to seek professional care. But leave the diagnosing to the professionals.
When your friend has their guard up, how you respond could dictate how quickly they open up with you – or whether they do so at all.
Being overly forceful almost always backfires. No one likes to be badgered into wearing their heart on their sleeve. Avoid guilt, shame or high-pressure tactics. Let your mate decide what they’re ready to share and when, but let them know the door is open.
If they resist your efforts to talk, give them space. Some people are just naturally more reserved. While it may seem counterintuitive, offering space can actually be the thing that convinces them you’re a safe person to talk to.
When someone has their guard up, they can see a full-frontal assault coming a mile away. In which case, it’s probably unwise to come right out and ask, ‘Are you experiencing any mental health issues lately?’
Instead, ask non-threatening, open-ended questions about how they’re doing or changes you’ve noticed. Another idea is to start by sharing something that you’ve been dealing with and asking if they can relate.
Instead of asking your friend to sit down for a ‘heart to heart’ (always a good way to get their defences up), start the conversation while doing something relaxing or enjoyable, like playing a round of golf or going for a hike.
The goal is not to ‘trick’ them into opening up, but to let the conversation proceed at a pace that’s comfortable for them.
Sometimes we assume we must ‘figure out’ what our friends need for them – when sometimes, all we have to do is ask.
Your friend may not be ready at this precise moment to accept all the help they will need, but they might be ready to receive some of it. Try asking, ‘What’s one thing you could use some help with?’ – and then do it.
Remember, small steps are better than no steps at all.
Sure, if your mate asks what you think they should do, you can gently suggest some options. But don’t give advice they didn’t ask for.
Your best bet is to let them talk as much (or as little) as they want. Keep asking open-ended, non-judgemental questions to keep the ball rolling.
If your friend manages to let their guard down for a bit, they might share things that are confusing or even alarming to you. Your reaction could impact whether they keep their guard down or put it right back up.
Try to keep a calm demeanour. They may interpret a strong reaction from you as a form of rejection or invalidation. Show them you can’t be unnerved by anything they share, and chances are good they’ll keep sharing. If you are genuinely alarmed by something they share, remember to contact a professional.
Don’t make this kind of conversation a one-time event. Keep checking in regularly.
But at the same time, be careful not to make every interaction about their mental health. Everyone needs to be reminded we are more than whatever we may be struggling with.
Make it a priority to hang out and just do normal, everyday things together – in addition to periodically talking about their mental health (as they’re willing). That might be what your friend needs most to feel comfortable opening up.
Getting a friend to open up about their mental health can feel like two steps forward, one step back. Don’t let that discourage you. Keep showing up for them, no matter what.
If at any point your friend expresses suicidal thoughts or anything that makes you concerned for their immediate safety, contact a doctor or emergency services.
Chances are, what your friend needs most from you is to know they’re not alone. That’s something you can give, no matter when they’re ready to share more.