What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

Updated: Sep 15



If I can think of one ‘pandemic positive’, it is that our collective struggles of living through such a challenging time have helped to normalise what it means to struggle with our mental health. If you look around, it seems like conversations around mental health are everywhere. Our discussions on social media, and with our friends and family, seem to have shifted to be more real, open and vulnerable.


However, despite this progress, one of the key barriers to open conversations around mental health is the fear of saying the wrong thing. Often people can feel uncomfortable, or worry about giving the ‘wrong’ response if someone does disclose a mental health issue to them. And who can blame them? Mental health training is something that many of us have never encountered.


It’s not always easy to find the right words when someone is struggling. It can feel daunting and sometimes we worry about saying the wrong thing so we don’t say anything at all. Because there are so many misconceptions and stigma around mental health problems, choosing to speak about these can be very difficult. So, if a friend or loved one talks to you about some of their difficulties, there are useful ways that you can support them.


Here are a few tips about how you can offer support when you have a friend or a family member struggling, or if you wish to reach out to someone on TalkCampus to support them.


1. Stop and listen, rather than trying to give advice.


It is more important to be genuinely caring than to say ‘all the right things'. Be supportive and understanding of the person you are supporting, and listen to them with undivided attention. Try your hardest to not jump in with your own related experience; although it’s well-intentioned it isn’t always relevant. Let them know you’re there to listen. Don’t try to fill the silence as they pause to think. Let them think. Let them feel. Let them self-reflect on what they’ve told you, and what they want to do next. Let them lead the discussion at their own pace, as you don’t want to put pressure on them to tell you anything they aren’t ready to talk about. Talking can take a lot of trust and courage. Always remember that you might be the first person they have been able to talk to about this.


2. Offer empathy.

Empathy, unlike sympathy, does not mean we agree with the other person or see things from the same point of view. Instead, it requires taking a moment to step outside of our normal patterns of thinking and feeling to imagine what it feels like to be the person in front of us. Sometimes people believe that no one else in the world feels the way they do or understands them. Let them know that you’re not judging them and that you understand how they are feeling. Distress increases for people who feel isolated, and by showing empathy, you can help the person you are supporting to calm down.


3. Use open questions:


If you’re struggling with what to say to someone why not try asking them an open question and see if you can get them to open up a bit more about how they are feeling. Open questions are ones that don’t lend themselves to yes or no answers, they encourage people to say a little more, like these:

“How are you feeling?”, “What’s that like for you?”


“What’s going on for you at the moment?”


By taking the time to try and understand more about what’s going on for someone you’re showing that you care and that you are interested in them. Try and keep your questions open if you can, although this isn’t always possible and there are no rules!


4. Summarise and reflect what someone is saying


Another way of being supportive is to summarise or reflect back on what someone is saying. It might sound strange but this can show someone that you have really heard and understood what they are saying. For example, you could say something like this:


“It sounds like you’re feeling really upset that your mum isn’t listening to you - that must be hard”


“I can hear that you are feeling really sad at the moment and want to let you know I’m thinking of you”


“It sounds like you are really going through a hard time at the moment and you’re not finding much hope in the world, have I understood right?”

7. Keep connected

It might be hard for the person you are supporting to have the energy to keep up contact, so try to keep in touch. Sometimes just a few short words to let someone know you’re thinking of them can make a real difference to how someone is feeling. Just by saying to someone that you’re thinking of them, that you care and they’re not alone can make a big difference.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions.

If you feel like someone is really struggling, and may be at risk of harming themselves, it’s important to act promptly. Sometimes people are reluctant to ask directly about suicide or self-harm because they think they will put the idea in the person’s head. This is not true. Similarly, if a person is suicidal, asking them about suicidal thoughts will not increase the risk that they will act on these. Instead, asking the person about suicidal thoughts will allow them the chance to talk about their problems and show them that somebody cares.

6. Know your limits.

It’s important to remember that although you can offer support, you are not responsible for the actions or behaviours of someone else, and cannot control what they might decide to do.

If you feel as though you are out of your depth, you can let the person know that you care about them and want to support them, but encourage them to reach out to a professional or to extend their support system.

If someone is at immediate risk, you do not need to agree to a promise to not tell anyone else. Instead, give an explanation why, for example, “I care about you too much to keep a secret like this. You need help and I am here to help you get it”. You need to take action to make sure they are safe. You might want to offer to go to the GP with them or help them talk to another friend or family member.

After supporting someone, make sure you take appropriate self-care. Providing support and assistance to someone struggling can be exhausting and it is therefore important to take care of yourself.

And what about supporting someone you don’t know, on TalkCampus?

TalkCampus is all about showing people they are not alone and that there are people out there who care. You have the ability to support someone just by being there and being you.

Here’s some advice from the TalkCampus community on how you can get involved with supporting others:

“If someone was nervous about commenting on a post I would ask them to think about how it feels when they get comments on their own posts. The feeling of not getting a comment is no one’s favourite feeling. A short comment saying nice words can help a lot of people”


“I would tell them not to be afraid. Tell them as long as you are trying to help them then say it. You might even save their life”

“If you don’t know what to say, you can say that! People want to be acknowledged and feel support, it can feel vulnerable to post something about ourselves, sometimes there aren’t words to help, but showing up is what’s most important.”

“If you wanna help or give words of wisdom just go for it, that’s why we are on here!”


TalkCampus Buddy Program

If you are interested in learning more about supporting someone, why not apply for our volunteering program and become a TalkCampus Buddy? TalkCampus trains students as community peer supporters by providing online training to equip you with the skills you need to support someone online.

  • No designated shifts - volunteer when it works for you.

  • Flexible training and development - learn at your own pace and in your own style.

  • Take a break whenever you need to - your mental health takes priority.

  • Help others and become part of a global community - have a positive and meaningful impact on the lives of fellow students all over the world.

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