How to Listen to Someone Who is Sharing Their Mental Health Story

When a friend, sibling, loved-one, or any individual comes to you in a state of vulnerability –– wanting to open up about their mental health challenges or experiences –– you play an essential role as their listener. Sharing and talking about how we’re feeling is an important part of self-care for everyone, and therefore, it’s equally important to feel comfortable listening.

Explore the tips below for support on how to be an effective listener, especially around the sensitivity of people sharing their mental health journeys.

Be patient and listen deeply.

  • Make sure to have your conversation in a quiet, relaxed, and safe space where you will not be interrupted by anything. Get comfortable within the space you are in; give the person all the time they need to share their story. Remember to listen verbally and with your body language. Nodding, making eye contact, and expressing phrases of validation will all help in shaping you as an effective active listener.

Validate! Do not try to give advice.

  • You are not meant to “fix” the person who you are listening to; your job is to be there for them, validate their experiences, and remain in your role as the “listener”. You may feel overwhelmed with all the information you hear, but remember you have no obligation to “treat” this individual or give them advice, as you are their peer and not their mental health professional.
  • Actively listen to everything they have to say. Be present. Make the person feel understood. Say the following phrases as you see fit:
    • “I hear you.”
    • “You are not alone.”
    • Avoid invalidating responses such as “you’ll be fine” or “it could be worse”, as these types of responses only minimize and dismiss the person’s feelings.
    • Effective validation includes two main elements: identifying a specific emotion and offering justification for feeling that emotion.
      • “She really said that to you? I’d be upset too!”
      • “You have every right to be sad; that was a traumatic experience.”
      • “It must be difficult to have experienced that.”
      • “I’m sensing that this brought up feelings of disloyalty.”
    • Do your best to hold back your immediate reactions to the person’s emotions, and only express validation and justification. This way, you are making the person feel completely understood and worthy.

Refer to professional resources

  • If the person sharing is interested in other resources, or if the situation becomes too much for you to handle
  • If the person you are listening to is interested in being connected to other resources to get help, you can refer them to any of the resources below that fit their situation:
    • Crisis Text Line: text HOME to 741-741 from anywhere in the USA, anytime, about any type of crisis
    • National Crisis (Suicide) Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
    • The TREVOR Project, 24/7 Line: 1-866-488-7386
    • National Sexual Assault Phone Hotline, (RAINN): 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
    • ​National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline: 1-800-931-2237
    • Teen Line (teen-to-teen hotline): email, call (800) 852-8336, or text 839863 from 6-10PM PST every day to talk with another teen
    • The Jed Foundation
    • You may also connect them to any of the above resources if you feel that the story you are listening to is too much for you to handle; there is no shame in taking care of yourself and referring them to a more professional resource.

Take care of yourself

  • Listening to another person’s mental health story can be challenging and quite emotional. Remember to check in often with yourself and how you are feeling as you listen. Practice the self-care throughout the process of listening to another individual’s mental health journey. Feel empowered to refer out to a more professional resource if at any point you feel that you cannot handle the story being presented to you; there is absolutely no shame in doing this.
  • Most importantly, however, you are there to listen and validate –– not to “fix” or “treat”. Listening and validating will have immense benefits in itself.

If we all are able to open our eyes, minds, and hearts to the people around us, we may notice ways that we can all help each other, starting out with simply listening. Listen deeply. Listen openly. Validate others’ experiences. Shatter the stigma around having vulnerable conversations around our real, valid mental health experiences.

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