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How to Recognize, Talk About & Support Mental Health

This article will discuss how to recognize when someone is struggling with their mental health, tips on thoughtfully reaching out, and how to talk about it with them when they’re ready to receive help.

What does helping someone who is struggling look like? We want to be supportive of friends, colleagues, and coworkers, but interacting in a virtual environment brings new levels of complexity to addressing mental health distress in the office. How do you initiate a conversation without feeling uncomfortable, nervous, or fear of offending? This article will discuss how to recognize when someone is struggling with their mental health, tips on thoughtfully reaching out, and how to talk about it with them when they’re ready to receive help.


It’s not always easy to recognize when someone is struggling. In many instances, the person can be adept at hiding it, and others may not even be aware or fully embrace the fact that there’s something wrong. Here are a few signs that indicate when someone is struggling and may require help.

Signs of mental health issues

  1. Decreased productivity and engagement. Numerous factors could result in reduced productivity, most of which can be direct products of mental health issues. These include, but are certainly not limited to, a lack of sleep, increased anxiety levels, poor dietary choices, etc. If, in addition to a lack of productivity, they appear to engage less readily with their colleagues and are more withdrawn, this could imply that they are suffering from loneliness,  distress and/or isolation.
  2. Changes in appearance and workspace, especially when it’s inconsistent with their typical image. While this isn’t always easy to pick up on in a virtual setting, a disheveled appearance or unorganized workspace might be an indicator that something is amiss. 
  3. Substantial periods of time away from work, lengthy breaks during the day, or consistently showing up late to meetings or logging off early. It’s common and completely natural to need a day off from time to time to decompress; work is stressful and affects everyone’s mental well-being. However, if these days off become more and more frequent, or their punctuality consistently dips, these may suggest that something more is going on.
  4. Volatile behavior is one of the clearest and telling signs that someone is dealing with mental health issues. This can include severe highs and lows in their overall attitude towards work and their colleagues or could be prolonged unusual behavior compared to their general, day-to-day demeanor.

Reach Out

Recognizing that a colleague may be going through their own mental health challenges is not always an easy first step, and it can be even more challenging to have a conversation with that person about what’s going on. When asking someone whether or not they’re having a difficult time and need help, it’s imperative to approach them with sensitivity and empathy. Approaching an individual and asking if something is wrong could lead to the unwarranted fear that their colleagues have noted their behaviors, which, in turn, could make them feel stigmatized by their mental health struggles and subsequent symptoms. Here are some things to keep in mind when reaching out. 

Strategies for starting the conversation

  1. Find a time when there’s little to no potential for distractions. In a virtual working environment, the end of the day is typically the ideal time; however, it’s essential to consider whether they may have commitments in the evening and work to accommodate them best. 
  2. Establish and maintain open and non-judgemental spaces to talk with you. Make sure that they feel psychologically safe to share, and allow them to share as much or as little as they’d like.
  3. Begin by asking them if there’s something on their mind or that’s bothering them. A couple of questions that could help open the conversation are, “you don’t seem like yourself lately, what’s going on?” or “you’ve been acting a bit differently recently, and I don’t want to make any false assumptions, so I wanted to check in with you to make sure everything is alright.”
  4. Normalize mental health by talking about it directly. Start the conversation by letting the individual know that you are there to listen. Acknowledge that the pandemic and everything that comes with it has caused an extraordinary amount of stress, difficulty, and suffering. Even if their mental health issues are not a direct result of the pandemic, this reminds them that they are not alone and that you understand and empathize with people in their position.

Engage and Maintain 

These types of conversations are complex and never easy, and it’s important to remember that while it may feel uncomfortable for you, it’s much more difficult for the other person. You want to be sure not to offend or push too hard, but you want the conversation to be productive in identifying what they’re dealing with and finding ways to offer help. It can be a delicate balance, so here are a few tips to help guide the discussion and keep the person feeling safe and engaged. 

Tips during the conversation

  1. Provide space to allow the person to open up and actively listen. Allow them to share as much as they’re comfortable sharing; this is their time. If they don’t open up entirely, that’s ok. If you push them too hard, they can become defensive and you run the risk of escalating their level of anxiety and making them feel less comfortable. Let them do the talking, and towards the end ask "what's the best way I can support you right now?"
  2. It can be helpful to ease the conversation by sharing your own, similar experiences with mental health and challenging life experiences, but remember that this is their time and you might now know the full extent of what they’re dealing with. It can help them feel more comfortable knowing that they’re not alone, but allow them to ask if they would like to hear about what you’ve been through before sharing. When sharing, do not make the conversation about yourself or compare your experience directly to theirs. While your difficulties might look similar in some regards, they’re always unique to each person.
  3. Avoid cliches such as "everything happens for a reason" during the conversation. Such statements may feel belittling or make it seem as though you’re not actively listening. Instead, continue to ask questions such as, "how are you feeling about X?" or “how would you have liked that to happen differently?”
  4. A genuine "I'm sorry" can go a long way to make your friend feel heard and validated, and it helps to continue to acknowledge that these things are difficult and offer your sympathy throughout the conversation. Towards the end, remind them that you genuinely care about them and are invested in their wellbeing. Thank them for opening up to you and ask them if they’re feeling any better about that conversation or if there’s anything you can do to help them.

When and how to provide additional support

After someone confides in you, follow up with them regularly to make sure that they know you’re always there for them. Conduct additional research on your own to better understand what they’re going through and how you can best provide support. Finally, ask them if they’d like your assistance in finding professional help. It’s never easy to ask for help, particularly with the current stigmatization of mental health issues, but it becomes much less daunting with the help, support and loving encouragement of someone who cares. 

Additional Mental Health Resources:

Peter Lesser

Peter is a recent MBA graduate of Northeastern University with a vast, diverse background in brand management, innovation, design and more. Prior to graduate school, he began his career in New York City as a freelance brand consultant and multimedia producer for tech startups. Over time, he shifted into the hospitality industry, co-founding his own restaurant consultancy that worked with new and struggling enterprises. In 2017, he returned to Boston to pursue his MBA with a focus in corporate innovation. Peter is a lifelong musician and adventurer. When not working, you can find him playing music, hiking deep into the mountains, or watching his favorite TV shows with his partner in Boston, MA.

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