It might be a friend, a work colleague, a family member, a life-partner, or almost anybody you know fairly well – so what do you do when you’re worried about someone’s wellbeing? This might be someone who is stressed, anxious, depressed or even suicidal. It could be a health issue like drug-abuse, smoking, obesity, untreated or poorly treated chronic illness (e.g. diabetes, high blood pressure, HIV, etc.), financial distress, etc. It might be a relationship problem or a workplace issue. Modern life is full of challenges and we all struggle sometimes.

To intervene, or not to intervene?

The first question is whether to simply leave-well-alone, or to do something. It’s tricky and no two situations are alike so you have to judge each on its own. Some simple questions often help…

  • If the roles were reversed, what would you want?
  • If things continue unchanged what do you think will happen?
  • If you do nothing and something bad happens, how will you feel?
  • How private or sensitive is this?

Often, the answers to these questions will help you decide whether or not to intervene in some way. Only you can decide.

What to do?

OK, so let’s say you’ve decided to approach the person you’re worried about. What to say? How? What is the best way to really help? Well, here are a few guidelines that may help you:

  • Make a private one-on-one approach. There are places where a “group” intervention can work, but in general it’s best to keep these things private.
  • Listen.
  • Explain why you are worried. Use “I” and simply express your concerns. It is not about you but it is about your concerns so that’s usually the place to start.
  • Listen.
  • Do not make a diagnosis. Do not go beyond your expertise and your role. You are not the doctor, psychologist, finance expert, or any such. You are a concerned friend (or family etc.) and you need to always remember the difference.
  • Listen.
  • Use available resources. You are not a health expert or a legal wizard or a finance expert so always remember that there are experts you can suggest. It is often a good idea to write down the contact details of experts you think might be able to help. Simply giving a troubled person a slip of paper with an important phone number on it (the company EAP is often valuable here), can be a life-changing intervention sometimes.
  • Listen.
  • Respect that the choices are not yours. If your friend refuses to take any action there is not much you can do. Remind him or her that you are concerned and that you are available at any time, but make it clear that you respect his or her choices. (If you really think a life or lives are in danger you can consider approaching others or even authorities like the Police, but these are rare situations.)
  • Listen.
  • Propose a catch-up. You have raised something important and probably sensitive. A initial brief chat with a follow-up in a few days often helps both of you to get comfy with the conversation.
  • Listen.
  • Remember that you cannot fix everything. You’re concerned. You have expressed your concerns and tried to help. You’ve done well. Sometimes you simply have to accept that you cannot do more.
  • Never break trust (unless lives are at risk). Never.

There is a lot that we can do to help those around us. If you’re worried about someone you may well be able to help. Remember to respect boundaries, be realistic and of course, to listen. You may change, or even save, a life.