Responding When Someone Reaches Out

January 9, 2019. Article by: Government of BC

For someone experiencing mental health and substance use-related challenges, taking the step to talk about what they’re facing can feel like a huge, scary leap into the unknown.

It can feel the same way for the person they reach out to. You may have opened the door to the conversation and let someone know you’re available if they ever need to talk. Or you might not have expected them to turn to you for support. 

Either way, there’s a chance you’re nervous about having this conversation too. And that’s OK; you don’t need to have all the answers. But knowing how to respond could help make the conversation you’re about to have a significant and positive moment in the life of a person experiencing these challenges.

What to do

Whether you’re a parent or partner, a friend or co-worker, your main role in this conversation is to listen.

Recognize, at that moment, the person in front of you could be highly vulnerable. It may have taken them a long time to feel able to talk and they could be particularly sensitive to what you say.

You could also be experiencing a range of emotions, from worry and fear to anger and even grief.

Whatever you are feeling, it’s important to stay calm and focused. The Three C’s of Conversation can help.

Connect to the present: Focus on your five senses to bring yourself into the present: “What do I see, hear, smell, feel, taste?”

Connect to your body: Take a few deep breaths, feel your toes and balls of feet on the ground, touch your hands together.

Connect to the individual: Visualize how you want to look and sound before starting to talk.

What to say

Stigma is a huge barrier to conversations about mental health and substance use. Shame and guilt can make things worse for people experiencing challenges. That’s why it’s critically important to speak from a place of kindness, care and respect, and not of judgement.

Try asking open and solution-focused questions. Things like:

  • What can I do to help?
  • Have you looked into ways to stay safe?
  • Do you feel ready to get professional support?

These kinds of questions encourage the person you are talking to share and shows that you are there to support them, rather than to judge.

What to do next

The conversation might go well. It might be stressful, painful or emotional. It might be a mixture of all these things.

Whatever the outcome, continuing to be there for the person will help take the conversation from the present into the future. Maybe you could help with finding treatment options. Or simply just being there for another courageous conversation.

Check out the following resources for more tools to support conversations about mental health and substance use.

How Do You Talk to Someone About Substance Use?

4 Tips for Talking to Youth About Drugs

Recovery Services and Treatment Support in B.C.

From Grief to Action 2018 – Dealing with Addiction in Your Family (PDF)

Supporting a Friend of Family Member with a Mental Illness