There are numerous memes and posts about the need to check on your “strong” friend. But who exactly is the “strong” friend? And what if the “strong” friend is you? To be honest, I’ve been wary of the word “strong” within my particular context. The strong Black Woman identity has both been a necessity for survival, and a downfall in terms of being seen as a fallible human who is also deserving of tender loving care.
Even outside of my particular context, “strong” tends to become this skewed vision of the person who appears to have it all together. You know who I’m talking about … those who:
- post positive messages on their social media soapbox;
- are consistent with their responses to your emails;
- actually answer the phone and return messages;
- don’t rush off Zoom as soon as someone says “the meeting is adjourned”;
- post pictures of their gorgeous partner and their smiling children;
- seem to accomplish all the things that look important;
- oh, and make bank!
So we’re surprised and even sometimes disgusted when people in positions of influence have the nerve to share vulnerably about their struggles with depression. We’re shocked and devastated to learn about a favorite comedian or business person who died by suicide. The knowledge throws us off, especially when that person is our high school girlfriend and seemed so happy and well to do.
But this post isn’t about “why” it’s important to check on people we care about. I’ve already written about that. No, this post is about “how,”
How can we reach out and be supportive to our loved ones?
There are no perfect answers to this question, but a few suggestions can go a long way.
If you are the “strong” friend and feeling more like a fraud every day, you’re in good company. We have all been there in some way, shape, or form. If you still have a little energy left, I want to encourage you to have the courage to reach out for support. If you are in a position where you have access to health benefits; employers who offer adequate workplace wellness support; or a family and support system you know you can lean on – tap into those resources now. When love is real, you are loved for being you, not for what you do. Take off the mask and lay down the cape … I promise, you’re worth it.
On the other hand, if you want to be that loving person to your strong friend, read on and take action by:
- Paying attention: If your friend posts on social media all the time, but suddenly stops posting, reach out. It’s not always the algorithms. I know it’s hard to keep up with everyone, but if someone’s messages meant something of value to you and they disappear, see what’s up. “Greetings friend, I noticed you stopped posting on IG. I miss your messages, your presence always means so much to me. I know sometimes people need a social media break, but I just wanted to check in with you to see if you’re physically and mentally safe.”
- Offering non-judgemental listening: Sometimes a friend will have the courage to reach out. So many people are uneasy about these situations that they overthink what needs to be said and done. We don’t have to be mental health experts. But we can be deep listeners. People often just want to be heard. Not advised, not told what they “should” do, not put in a position where you’ve somehow reversed the conversation and made it about you. Listen with compassion … for example, I saw a meme that addressed the way people reacted to a famous person’s vulnerability to mental health issues. It said something along the lines of, “that person will likely not see your responses, but your family and your friends will.” Agreed. Will you be the person someone can feel safe to be vulnerable with?
- Going to wash some feet: Not literally! But a humble act of service may be just the kind of medicine a friend needs. When you have a friend who just doesn’t want to talk, but they’re open to small acts of kindness, their heart quietly leaps with the joy they forgot they had when you love on them. “Hey, girl! I just ordered some pizza and I sent some your way. I know you like breadsticks too so I got those for you. It’s my treat and just enjoy. I’m here to listen if and when you’re ready to talk.”
I thought it might be helpful to hear from some peers who are also adamant about mental health and wellbeing. So, I reached out to a few women in my network.
Here are some ways they suggested to frame questions to check on friends:
I find starting by asking big picture questions opens the door for conversation … such as, “How are you doing with everything that is on your plate? How are you feeling about it?” – Shaillee Juneja @GW4WVoice
I would say, “A lot of people are going through a lot of changes right now, how have things been lately for you?” – Robin Bender @mega_health_canada
I’ll ask, “What do you need from me?” or “What can I do for you?” A lot of people will wear that mask and act like everything is fine because they’re used to people not caring but asking those questions puts one in service of the hurt and depressed person. – Raqui Beuviere
For me the question would be, “Hey friend, how are you holding up these days?” I might even ask a friend “How is your mental health these days?” But that is pretty direct for most people to ask. –Nancy Board
I’ll give you two-ish … “What has been difficult for you to do?/What can I do to help you with…?” – Dr. Ayesha Worsham – @knitwithanaturopath
“How are you feeling these days?” That’s of a slightly different quality than “how are you” and usually makes people pause and realize that I mean it. I am truly inviting a real response. – Crystal Chan
I would ask this simple, nonconfrontational, and open-ended question: “How are things?” – Pamela Barroway
I’ll leave you with this … you may be pleasantly surprised to find that reaching out to be a loving presence to someone else, in turn, blesses you.
What are some of the ways you would want someone to reach out to you if you are ever in need of support, whether you are the “strong” friend or not?