How To Handle Conversations When A Friend Opens Up About Mental Health

How to handle conversations when a friend/teammate opens up about mental health?

Research shows that those struggling with a mental health concern are more likely to come to peers and friends before seeking professional help. 


Imagine this scenario… You are walking around the mall with your friend enjoying the time away from practice.  While walking your friend starts to open up about how they feel sad all the time and are having thoughts they haven’t had before.  They tell you they feel like it would be better if they just weren’t around anymore, nothing will make them happy, and they don’t feel like anything ever will.  You stand there as the friend you are but don’t know what words to say.  You want to be supportive, strong, and not scared for your friend.

These types of situations are common.  It is also common to not know how to handle them – you may become uncomfortable, nervous, and, quite frankly, scared.  These feelings may come up with multiple types of conversations about mental health including suicide.  It doesn’t matter if you are in middle school, high school, college, or an adult, being comfortable having discussions with others about mental health is important.  There is a very high chance that a friend, teammate or colleague will talk to you about a mental health concern at some point in your life and knowing what to say to help them get the help they may need is very important.

When these conversations come up, the best way to respond is in a supportive way.  Remember, they respect you enough to come to you with their struggles and feelings.   This response has the potential to let the individual know they are not being judged, it creates a trusting environment for you to then offer help they may need.  It’s OK not to have the answers. Simply being there for them and helping them get the professional help they may need can be the best solution.

Here are other ways to talk to a friend/teammate/coworker when they come to you with mental health struggles:

  • Communicate open and honestly: use “I” and “You” statements, for example: “I am glad you are talking to me” “You haven’t seemed yourself” “I have been concerned about you” “How can I help you” this helps the individual feel that the conversation is genuine. If you have been worried about them tell them, if you did not realize they were going through a hard time let them know, etc.
  • Ask questions: some examples are “how long have you been struggling with this?” “Do you want me to help you find someone to talk to?”  “How can I help?”  Try to learn about your friend and what they are currently going through.   If you don’t understand something they say, ask them more about that.
  • Listen to what they are saying: this one can be hard because when conversations come up you may be saying to yourself ‘Oh no, what do I do?’ ‘How do I change the subject?’ or ‘Ahhhhh.’ When this is going on in your mind it is hard to be in the present with the person opening up to you.
  • Reassuring the person you care and treating them with compassion and empathy.
  • Comparing a mental health struggle to a physical injury or sickness. This helps the individual realize that when something is wrong physically or with health then you would get help you need to get better, and that this situation is no different.
  • *MOST IMPORTANTLY* Help them find professional resources. Offering to go with them to an appointment can help ease any worries they may have.  Here is the link to the previous article I put together of mental health resources. 


Emily Brunemann by Mike Lewis (1 of 1)

Photo courtesy of Mike Lewis.

Emily Brunemann is a professional swimmer, training with Club Wolverine at the University of Michigan. She graduated with a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Michigan in 2009 and is currently working on her Master’s degree in Social Work, with a concentration in interpersonal practice and mental health. Emily is interning in the University of Michigan Athletic Department counseling services and helping with the Athletes Connected program. She is a former team captain, NCAA champion, 2013 Open Water World Cup Circuit Champion and a member of the US National Team since 2007. 

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8 years ago

As a former swimmer (I swam at senior national level for 5 years), I have had many first hand experiences with mental health myself and through teammates. I am so happy this is finally being discussed. If we acknowledge it as an open subject, and not one to be hushed upon, it will drastically improve the chances of those suffering to open up for help. In recalling memories of attempting to tell my coach of anxiety/panic attacks, depression, and suicidal thoughts that were hushed down and “swam through”- along with numerous teammates also suffering through anxiety, depression, and many eating disorders- brings back my faith to the sport that we can overcome this obstacle.

Mary T, McCole
8 years ago

Wonderful article and every word so true. I think it’s a privilege when your friend chooses you to talk to about mental health issues.

Rick Paine
8 years ago

Great article Emily. This subject needs to be talked about and everyone should read this.

About Emily Brunemann

Emily Brunemann

Emily Brunemann  Emily Brunemann is an American open water swimmer from Crescent Springs, Ky. Born Sept. 19, 1986 Brunemann was born into an extremely athletic family in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her parents, James and Mary Lynn, were both both student-athletes at Xavier, and her brother, Christopher, played football at Western Kentucky. Brunemann is …

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