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How to reach out to someone who is feeling down: a guide

All over the festive season, is bringing you tried and tested ways to help you keep your mental health in fine fettle.

“MIND YOURSELF.” It’s a common sign-off when you’re saying goodbye to a friend. It’s also a good starting point if you’re trying to figure out how to connect with someone you know who you think is feeling less than 100%.

Robert Carley, who helped create the online from Suicide or Survive, speaks from personal experience about the value of reaching out to someone who is feeling despondent.

In this video for the #LittleThings campaign by the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention and partner organisations, he explains how a timely outreach of support and love from his brother helped him:

That’s all it was – a simple truth that was dropped into my heart by someone who really cared for me.

HSE Ireland / YouTube

How to reach out

Robert – who is also a trainer and motivational speaker now – says that he teaches people to have a positive attitude. However, he wonders if it is part of the Irish culture to “have an aversion to telling people that they are good and that we love them”.

He recommends that people learn not to be afraid to accept and to give small expressions of love. “My parents were very good at telling us that they loved us.” Now he expresses a simple phrase in his workshops which he thinks can be a mantra for people, both to repeat to themselves and to others:

You’re lovely, you’re loveable and you’re loved.

Robert’s wife Jean died suddenly four years ago from an aneurysm and although he has since found love again, he knows that it was both his faith in God, and the simple extension of sympathy and support from friends that helped him through that dark year.

What got me through was people telling me that they loved me. People are sometimes afraid to contact you because they don’t know what to say. But you know what? The best thing you can do is go to the person, give them a hug and say, ‘I don’t know what to say to you.’ That is enough. The acknowledgement is enough.

Úna-Minh Kavanagh, who has also participated in the #LittleThings campaign, agrees.

Sometimes a little text is that little bit of love that you need.

She says that being a supportive friend can be challenging but that the most helpful thing you can do for a friend in need is to be a good listener.

“I think it might be tougher for guys, they might not speak to each other in that more intimate way,” she says, “but we can all learn to be a bit softer in our approach to someone who is feeling down. It’s probably not helpful to say, “chin up” or to not really listen and be inattentive and looking around while someone is spilling their heart to you.”

The ‘right’ things to say

As a professional in the therapy field, one would presume clinical psychologist Tony Bates would have a lexicon of the ‘right’ things to say to someone who is feeling low.

In fact, he says, there is no real right or wrong words. He thinks that loved ones can have the best instinct on how to connect with someone to let them know they are there for them.

“You know what means something to them,” he says. “It might be making them a cup of tea, offering to go to the cinema, hanging out the washing – any expression of kindness that you know will let them see that you care for them and are there for them.

“The big problem when someone is feeling down is that they feel worthless or that they are of less worth. What we need to communicate to them is that they are of value, that someone sees the good in them when they don’t.”

If you do decide to ask them directly about how they are feeling, Bates recommends that you begin with using the pronoun ‘I’, speaking in the first person so that you are taking the heat off them.

“As in, ‘Maybe I am misreading this but I’m a bit concerned about you right now’. If you speak in the first person about your concerns, that gives people a lot of space. It’s very hard for people to talk about their feelings sometimes. It can be awfully hard to find the language. They feel they are letting down their colleagues, or their children, or their partner and they are not comfortable. Give them time and space to come at it.”

What if someone isn’t responding? Should I leave them alone?

We’ve all been there – noticing a friend is distant and reaching out to them, only to be ignored or rebuffed.

“Don’t take it personally and hang in there,” recommends Tony Bates.

Don’t abandon them. Don’t keep pestering them with ‘what’s wrong with you’ but be a gentle presence in their life and do kind things.

As a founding director of Headstrong, the mental health organisation for young people, he has much clinical experience of how young adults and teens react to loved ones’ concern for them.

“Don’t give up, especially with young people,” he says, “they can provoke us to abandon them but it isn’t necessarily what they want. Some small part of them will hope you won’t give up, but they can’t bear for you to see how messed up they are. Bear with them.”


  • And don’t forget, in times of crisis, The Samaritans are on 116 123; 24 hours a day or email

See our series on #LittleThings that can make a big difference to your mental wellbeing in 2015 here>

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