Every guide to mental health will tout, “Talk to someone you trust,” which is really good advice — if you already have someone. But for those of us who were raised in unhealthy homes, have been abused or neglected by spouses and “friends”, or are generally unsure of how to go about knowing if a person is safe to confide in, this advice is incredibly difficult. Turning to the wrong person in a time of need can even make things exponentially worse — this is true in times of depression, mania, trauma, anxiety, or psychotic episodes; no matter what we’re going through, we need someone to be there when it really counts.
How do we know if someone is “safe”? How can I tell if I can trust this new friend/partner? Can you love someone and know they’re the wrong person to turn to when shit hits the fan?
Trust looks different for everyone, so this really can’t be an all-inclusive step-by-step instructional manual. However, the guidelines are pretty universal, and there is definitely a trend in what a “safe” person looks like. If you’re wondering how to identify someone you can trust, you can use this post as a starting point and follow your intuition from there.
If you aren’t experiencing a mental illness, this can be taken as a guide on how to be a good support for someone who is; there are pieces here dedicated specifically to those who are in that position.
A Caveat Before We Begin
Your friend/spouse/parent/sibling is not your therapist, nor your personal dumping ground. We are all human, with our own journeys and our own bad days. If someone needs some space, give them space. Ask if they can handle difficult news. Make sure they’re okay, too. This has to be a healthy street both ways.
They Take Action
When I’m in the throes of depression and/or PTSD, I can’t eat. I will stare at a cupboard full of food and turn away from it. I’ll let the vegetables and fruit and meat go bad and then avoid going to the store at all costs. It’s what I struggle with the most, and I often go days at a time without eating. Those closest to me are very familiar with this pattern.
When I was living with my best friend a few years ago, things got really bad at a couple points. Whenever my friend made a meal, he’d make a little extra, knock on my bedroom door, hand me a bowl of food, and leave me be. Usually, that was the only real substance I’d eat that day. If I wanted to talk later, we would hang out in the living room and he’d try to feed me more snacks.
When I moved into a new place, his housewarming gift was a trip to the grocery store and a homecooked meal (with enough for leftovers).
My sister regularly sends me money with the memo, “Go buy sushi!” and texts me until I send her a picture of the food. Sometimes, she’ll send a pizza to my house.
My partner knows to ask, “Have you eaten today?” when I’m stressed out, and gently badgers me until I do.
My favorite people all have the same love language: food. They feed everyone they love, but they know what I struggle with and take extra steps to make sure I’m taken care of. And I love them so much for it.
My sister also struggles with depression, and one thing that exacerbates her symptoms is seeing dishes pile up: it’s overwhelming, and she feels like she can’t do anything, and soon enough she’s completely spiraled into a depressive episode. For years, I had no idea that this was a trigger for her. Now that I know, I wash her dishes every time I visit. She said that’s one of the nicest things I’ve ever done for her.
This all goes back to the old proverb, Actions speak louder than words. Are the people you’re turning to backing up their claims of help, or is it all lip service?
They Really Listen
Does your partner quickly change the subject every time you bring up what you’re going through? Does your friend try to make your experiences about them, equating your present to their past? Does your parent shut you down or brush aside your concerns? Does your sibling try to one-up what you’re feeling? Does your therapist immediately offer solutions instead of letting you finish what you’re saying?
If yes, then they’re not really listening.
This doesn’t mean they’re bad people, and this doesn’t mean you can’t love or like them any less, but they’ve already proven they aren’t someone you can turn to when your world is crumbling.
When a good friend of mine was given a scary diagnosis, I asked him, “How are you holding up, really?” I stayed quiet as he unloaded for a few minutes, then told him his feelings were completely valid given the situation. When he thanked me for listening, I said, “I try to be a good void to scream into once in a while.”
He’s often done the same for me.
If you’re on the assisting side of things, it’s hard not to react and contribute when hearing someone’s story, but trust me, it’ll be a much more productive conversation if the listener really listens. No reactions, no one-upping, no problem-solving: just listen. We all need to scream once in a while; it’s just a matter of finding a void that won’t scream back.
You Can Tell Them What You Need
Nobody can read minds. You can’t resent someone for not helping you when you don’t tell them you need help. It can be really difficult, but it’s up to you to communicate your needs. If you feel like you can talk to your person and tell them what you need from them, have that conversation.
For example, my mom is a “fixer” — she offers solutions and tries to fix whatever the problem is. This is especially irritating when there are no solutions to be had. When I’m having a bad day, I’ll sometimes call her and say, “I’m having a really hard day; I already know what I need to do but I need you to listen to me and say, ‘That sucks’.” Then I’ll word-vomit for a few minutes, and at the end she’ll say, “That really sucks.” She still sometimes tries to solve the issue at hand, but knowing that she’ll take a moment and listen makes a big difference in feeling like I’m actually being heard.
(She makes up for fixing things by sending me cards to say she’s proud of me. I keep all of them. Thanks, Mom.)
If you can’t tell your person of choice what you need, or you do and they don’t follow through, then it’s time to cut your losses — this person isn’t one to turn to, and that’s okay. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Just because they can’t help you here doesn’t mean they can’t help you in other ways. (If they’re toxic and you don’t feel like you can trust them with anything, that is a very different and much more serious matter.)
Your Conversations Are Kept Private
This is not applicable in cases of emergency — this is meant for every-day struggles.
There’s nothing worse than telling someone something in confidence and finding out they told everyone. Are your conversations kept private? Do your friends ask before sharing details about your life? Did you tell your sibling something and get an earful about it from your parents later? Are your private struggles the talk of the office?
Even the most well-intentioned people can be accidentally harmful, and with something as fragile as a mental state, it’s very important that the only ones who know are the ones who will make it better, or at least won’t make it worse. Do not use someone’s mental health as a gossiping point. Don’t tell anyone they don’t trust. Always, always, always ask if it’s okay to share anything that was said in private.
[Note: the original version of this section was kind of triggering and came with a content warning, so by necessity it it was edited for brevity. Abusers will often use their victim’s mental health as an attacking point, which is why it is so crucial that these conversations are kept in confidence.]
How Do They Make You Feel?
When I heard the phrase, “People won’t remember what you said, they’ll remember how you made them feel,” some inner working of my mind clicked. I realized why I hated talking about what I was going through: because I didn’t feel heard/understood/seen/loved. Even if the other person said all the “right” things, the emotion behind the interaction was lacking, and I was left more hurt than when the conversation began. At other occasions, I spent more time consoling them (“No, I’m not feeling suicidal; yes I trust you,” etc) than I did talking about what I was going through, and was left exhausted and impatient after being made responsible for someone else’s emotions.
How does your person (or people) make you feel when you talk to them? Do you feel like you can be open with them, or are you editing your story? Do they make you feel guilty for having a mental health problem? Are they making you responsible for their emotions?
By contrast: can you be honest with them? Do you feel better after talking to them? Do you feel reassured and validated? Does it feel like they tried to understand what you’re going through? If asked for help, were they gentle in their suggestions?
This is a tricky one to navigate, because as humans we’re an emotional and fluid lot, and we can be vastly different from one day to the next. Sometimes, the person we turn to is at capacity and simply doesn’t have the emotional reserves to be there for us. That’s okay. Leave them be. They still love you. You are not their responsibility, and they are not yours.
They Show Up
Showing up imperfectly is better than not showing up at all. This is a lesson I learned while trying to be a better ally for the BIPOC community, but it’s applicable in all relationships.
Nobody wants to think of themselves as the “fair weather friend”, but too many times we shy away from those who are struggling. It’s a lot to take on when your friend says they’re suicidal, or your husband’s anxiety is preventing him from leaving the house, or your roommate’s depression means she lost her job and you’re on the hook for rent. I’m speaking from both sides of the fence when I say it’s hard to process that our loved ones are struggling, but it’s also hard to go through an invisible hell and suddenly wonder why you haven’t heard from your friend in a while, or why they keep the conversations on a surface level.
There’s no textbook on how to be present for someone who is struggling through a mental illness — or any illness, really — because each person and relationship is different. It’s a difficult thing to navigate because there’s so much trial and error.
To the friends and family who want to help: you don’t have to know the right words to say. You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to be entertaining. You don’t have to try and cheer up the person who’s struggling.
Check in. Say hi. Send a meme. Ask how they’re doing, really. Remind them that their experiences are valid. Ask what they need right now. If there is something, do it. If there isn’t, just be there. Lay under a blanket with them and watch mindless television for a few hours. If they say they want space, give them space and check in the next day. If you need space, tell them you love them and are there for them, but you need some self-care. Be gentle.
You don’t have to be perfect. Just show up, as you are. It makes a world of difference.
In Favor Of Animals
Sometimes, humanity just doesn’t cut it: no matter what we say or to whom, the interaction leaves us drained and worse off than before. It’s at times like this that I’ve found having a canine or feline companion to be the most beneficial. They listen without judging. They console without needing reassurance. They love you as you are, in this broken and imperfect moment.
I taught my dog a couple signs for “hug me”, and he pushes his full body weight on me like the world’s elbowiest weighted blanket. I had a cat that would lay next to my head and give me “kisses” by pressing her nose against my face while loudly purring. In those moments — when it felt like my world was spinning out from under me, my mind was trying to split from my body, being alive caused physical pain, and I didn’t feel safe in my own skin — they reminded me that I have a reason to keep going. I have a reason to believe everything will be okay; even though my world might absolutely suck, my world also includes them, so it can’t be all bad.
I know for a fact I’m not the only person who has greatly benefited from having an animal companion. In fact, doctors can essentially prescribe a pet — called an Emotional Support Animal — for those who are neurodivergent but can still function mostly-normally. Equine-assisted therapy has also proven time and again to aid in social improvement, emotional healing and understanding, and mental development.
When all else fails, turn to the animals.
Trust is a big issue in all relationships, and as we face new and increasingly-difficult situations with every passing week, it’s imperative that we figure out who can really counted on, regardless of our mental and emotional state. I’ve had to learn the hard way many times over what an “unsafe” person looks like; I don’t want anyone to have to go through that, though it’s likely everyone will at some point or another. I truly hope this post shed some illumination on what to look for in a “safe” person, or how to be one.
What do you look for in people? Is there anything you would add to the list? Let’s have a conversation.