In our last post, we shared a few of the signs to look out for online that might mean a friend is experiencing a mental health problem. In this post, the staff who work each day supporting people on our webchat service Time Online have shared some practical everyday advice for having conversations about mental health via text or messenger apps. 

When we talk online we don’t have important context clues about how someone is feeling, like body language and tone of voice, and this can make it difficult to have an emotional conversation over text messages. If you feel comfortable doing so, offer your friend the opportunity to continue the conversation on a phone call, voice chat or in person. Of course sometimes, people feel able say things online that they wouldn’t say face to face.  This can sadly lead to some people ‘trolling’ or making cruel comments, but on the flipside it can also mean that someone may find it easier to open up about a problem they’re having in writing rather than saying it out loud. You know your friend, and will get a feel for what they’d find most helpful – and if in doubt, ask them how they’d prefer to talk about it. Talking online can also often be helpful to you as the person offering support. You can read and digest the other person’s messages and take a moment to form your response, allowing you to reflect on what you’re saying and whether it will be helpful to them.

To show that you’re empathising with their problems, avoid being sarcastic or ‘making light’ of the situation – this can seem uncaring, especially if someone is not in a good frame of mind and can’t take cues from your body language or voice. Instead, use phrases such as “I’m sorry to hear that…”, “That must have been very difficult”, “I can imagine that was hard to experience”. These make it clear to your friend that you empathise with them.

To help avoid misunderstandings and help your friend verbalise their thoughts, try directly asking ‘feeling questions’ such as “how did that make you feel?”, “how have you been since that happened?”, “how are you feeling now?”. This can also give you an insight into what type of support they may need.

It can really help to use direct and specific language – this ensures your message is not confused or read in a different way to how it is meant. Using phrases such as “I understand how you’re feeling, have you tried any distraction techniques?” is a good way to engage someone into a conversation and help them to think of ways to help themselves. Keep questions open-ended to encourage conversation, rather than things that can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Consider questions that ask about ‘who, what, why, when, how.’

It can be tempting to try and ‘fix’ the situation by offering lots of advice, but before you jump in make sure to find out what they’ve already tried, or if they’ve been having any ideas themselves about what they need. Your friend knows their circumstances better than anyone else and may already be aware of solutions/techniques they can use - but they might want to discuss these with someone else for confirmation. Consider using phrases such as “How did you respond?”, “How did you cope with that?”, “What support have you had?”, “What do you think you could do next?” If your friend does need help finding some support, it can be really easy to do this online as you can quickly search for advice and share links to helpful sites. You can also encourage your friend to do activities you know they usually enjoy.

Most of all, reassure your friend that you are there for them, and encourage and praise them as much as possible in meaningful and genuine ways. Remind them of character traits that you feel will help them get through this time, or of events in the past when they’ve coped well with something that is similar to their current situation.

Remember, if you think someone you know is at risk of suicide - for example, they talk about a specific plan for harming themselves or post something that seems like a goodbye/suicide note – contact The Samaritans at any time of day, on 116 123, or [email protected]. If you believe someone is in immediate danger, contact the emergency services on 999.