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How to Check In on Your Friends’ Mental Health Without Asking 'What’s Wrong?'

by Julia Gray

February 7, 2024

When a friend seems to be struggling emotionally, it’s natural to want to help. And while “what’s wrong?” might seem like the obvious question to ask, it’s likely to fall flat, and there are several reasons why. 

“What’s wrong?” doesn’t provoke an open conversation but rather presses for a definitive answer when one may not exist. We asked mental health experts for some alternate questions that are more likely to get at the root cause of your friend’s troubles.

“Traditionally, in our culture, the answer to what’s wrong is ‘nothing,’” Dana Copp, a licensed therapist and social worker, says. “It doesn’t really open up the conversation.” Instead, try “I care about you” or “I’m worried about you.” These starters establish a sense of compassion before delving into specifics.

 

“Then ask how they are really doing?” Copp says. “Ask if they are eating and/or sleeping? Ask about their stress level.”

Start with “I care about you”

“You’ve been more [descriptor] than usual”

It’s important to choose your words carefully when sharing your observations. Psychotherapist Cecille Ahrens suggests saying, “You’ve been more ____ than usual, and I’m a little concerned about it,” and filling in the blank with descriptive words (e.g., “irritable” or “stressed”) rather than fraught labels (e.g., “crazy” or “depressed”).

“It creates more emotional safety and lowers a person's defensive mechanisms,” Ahrens says. “Asking ‘what's wrong,’ although well-intended, may leave the person feeling pressured or confused.”

Psychologist Samantha Stein says that acknowledging your friend’s experience by being specific will show you’re paying attention and indicate what inspired your concern. These kinds of questions also invite sharing.

Some sample questions:

  • "I've noticed you don't seem to want to hang out as much, is something bothering you?" 

  • "You haven’t been going to class. Is something going on? Do you want to talk?" 

  • “I noticed you haven't been yourself lately, and I'm wondering how you're doing."

 

If you’ve observed your friend doing things like self-isolating or engaging in high-risk behavior like drug use (and you’re comfortable broaching the subject), you can raise those concerns.

“I’ve noticed…”

“How are you feeling?”

This is an open-ended way of asking “what’s wrong?,” but instead of prompting them for the whole backstory, it encourages someone to reflect on their immediate sensations or current mental state. “How are you feeling?” is an easier question to answer and often a fruitful jumping-off point for follow-up questions and long-term support. 

When someone is visually upset, whether they’re crying or raising their voice, you’ll need a straightforward strategy. “What happened?” gets to the heart of the inciting incident without labeling the situation or their response as wrong. It also tells someone you’re interested in hearing their story, rather than attempting to quiet their reaction.

“What happened?”

“I’m here”

Your friend might not be ready to talk, but you should still leave the door open to future conversations and reiterate that they’re not alone. “I'm here for you if you need someone to talk to or someone to lean on” and “please let me know if you need with anything” will leave room for ongoing discussions and establish that you want to help them.

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