Content warning: This blog post directly references depression and suicide.
When times get tough, whether due to a pandemic, a physical or mental health issue, financial stress, or other challenges, it’s important to “check on your strong friends.” We sometimes hear this when a news story breaks about an unexpected tragedy affecting a public figure, such as the suicide death of dancer, choreographer, actor, producer, and TV personality Steven “tWitch” Boss. These types of events can create a sense of shock, sadness, and confusion for people who view public figures as strong, happy, and having everything they could ever want.
Who are these “strong friends?” These are the people that you and others view as consistently resilient, capable, and able to handle life’s curveballs without breaking a sweat. They might also be the people who disclose less about their distress and focus more on ways they can serve and care for others. But just because they don’t share their distress doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Many people want to support their strong friends in times of need but aren’t sure what to do or say. Here are some practical tips for how to check on your strong friends and also better support yourself.
When you become aware of a public figure or personal friend experiencing depression or suicidal ideation, it’s important to reflect on your own thoughts, feelings, and history with these topics, even if you haven’t directly experienced them. Be honest with yourself about what might be upsetting to talk about and why, and allow yourself the space to process and cope with those feelings in a way that leaves you feeling stable and capable of supporting others.
If you react to these topics with confusion, dismissal, or judgment, it’s helpful to be honest about that and take time to process why that might be before trying to support someone else. For example, mental health stigma and distorted ideas of strength, especially among men and in communities of color, can influence our relationship with these topics and how we respond when they come up.
Take time to explicitly check on your strong friends to see how they’re doing. Do this throughout the year, not just when things seem like they’re spinning out of control. Try statements like:
Check in with those you care for, even when it feels awkward or unnecessary. These conversations can be intimate, so be intentional with the time and place you bring them up. Depression can cause someone to believe no one cares about them—checking in consistently is one way to affirm that people do.
Once you establish a way to check in regularly, it’s also important to be specific with what you want to know. This makes it harder for people to evade your questions with vague or broad answers, which can keep them feeling alone and unsupported. Some examples include:
It’s important for people to know they’re more than the struggles they face. In addition to asking about distressing events in their lives, check in about other aspects of their lives that are important to them as well. This can be a helpful reminder that you see and value all of them, and aren’t simply supporting them out of pity or judgment.
Often, we can project what we think a person should be feeling based on their external circumstances and overlook how they’re actually feeling. Try not to be distracted with all they may be achieving, what they do, or how much money they make. It may take time for someone who feels uncomfortable with vulnerability and transparency to feel comfortable being open and honest. So remember to be patient, empathetic, and stay present and engaged over time.
The “strong ones” in our lives may mask distress or depression because they believe people will only accept them when they’re stable and happy. They may find evidence that this is true because others are confused or surprised when they’re not the best, most upbeat versions of themselves. Listening past the strength also means making sure to listen and respond in a way that releases them from the burden of showing up “strong.”
Certain cultural groups, like Black women, may experience depressive symptoms differently and have unique ways they’re burdened with a perception of “strength.” You can offer support by normalizing them relying on you without needing to “perform” or serve you in a particular way. It can also look like having patience and sitting with them in their moments of distress in a way that doesn’t assume their quick recovery or return to “normal.”
“How would someone know you’re struggling or your mental health is declining? What do you do? How do you act? What phrases or statements should I look for?”
It can be helpful for people in trusting relationships to ask each other these questions outside moments of intense distress or mental health crisis. We’re all painfully aware that life can hold moments of agony and struggle; how we respond to that difficulty can be different from person to person. While distress might look like uncontrollable tears or worries for one person, it might show up as anger or substance use for someone else.
For this reason, it’s vital to talk directly about what distress looks like for them. Those who serve as strong pillars in our lives can often have more subtle, seemingly benign ways of showing distress. Make time to discuss these differences so you can more easily identify them and respond in a helpful way.
For many, discussing their moments of struggle is continuously difficult and uncomfortable, but these people are still worth hearing and supporting. One strategy to better understand a loved one’s struggle is to create a “cheat code”— a mutually agreed upon shorthand you can use if someone is in distress—so people don’t have to do a lot of work to communicate what’s difficult for them in the moment. This could look like an understood definition of what it means to not “be OK” or using an agreed upon symbol via text message that signals a certain level of distress (for example, a code word, emoji symbol, or GIF).
Helpful support can vary from person to person. After identifying red flags, a great follow-up is to talk about what type of support would help during a crisis. While some may need to talk and externally process, others may need practical support like help with child care, meals, or even permission to sit in silence. Discussing this before stressful moments can be less overwhelming than it would be during a crisis.
Regular check-ins are critical when someone is in distress. Your response to what’s shared during a check-in is equally, if not more, crucial. Those who care enough to check in sometimes are unsure how to respond when what’s shared feels heavy or concerning. During these times, it’s important to lead with empathy.
If you haven’t experienced depression or suicidal ideation and don’t understand what leads someone to behave in certain ways, your lack of understanding doesn’t mean you’re incapable of understanding someone facing these situations. Rather, consider being unable to relate comes with a level of privilege that’s worth acknowledging to yourself. You don’t have to have direct lived experience with depression or suicidal ideation to offer care, compassion, and support.
Leading with empathy looks like:
We can’t be expected to single-handedly maintain someone else’s mental health or sustain their life. We don’t have the ability to save anyone from themselves. This isn’t a weakness or evidence of inferiority on our part; it’s merely a fact of our humanity. Embrace this limitation and know that even if you use all of the strategies outlined here, there may still be pain and suffering you simply cannot eliminate. Even medical or mental health professionals are limited in what they can control and guarantee. Make sure to care for yourself as you embark on this journey to care for others.
One of the best ways to support others can be to involve other people who are trained to handle mental health crises. You can support others by:
It’s important to note that this isn’t an exhaustive list of ways to check on your strong friends. There are many other ways to support those around you who may be in distress. Also, these tips might not work for everyone in every situation. They won’t completely prevent someone from suffering in silence or feeling hopeless or alone. They’re simply suggestions to consider as a starting point to enhance the support to those who normally take on the role of supporter.
Who is the strong friend in your life? It could be a parent, family member, friend, co-worker, partner, or someone else you care about. Think about those who support you in your times of need. Consider how you can offer meaningful support that lets them know how much you care and how much they matter, no matter how “strong” they seem.