How to react if a colleague tells you they have a mental health problem

Cue: this ridiculous stock image is certainly not the right answer.

One of the reasons we’re still struggling to address mental health issues, is because of the stigma that comes with them.

In the past (and probably still today), telling someone you were seeing a psychologist was often met with raised eyebrows as if to say “oh no! They must be crazy” or “they must have serious issues”. Same with the word depression, people have a concerned look and are worried your’e suicidal, don’t know how to respond, take pity on you or are worried you’re going to become a burden.

Even worse in the workplace: admitting to suffering from burnout is like admitting you’re weak, and there’s a fear of not being a desirable candidate for future employers.

For most mental health issues it’s the same: due to a lack of knowledge, people don’t know how to react and are often uncomfortable. And I understand, even as someone who is more used to talking about it sometimes I’m not sure what to say either.

Nevertheless, here are my top tips on what you can do if someone talks to you about their mental health issues.

1. Be grateful

This may sound crazy but it’s a useful way to help yourself slow down before you answer the person across the table. They just took a risk by telling you something personal. They trusted you enough that they felt open to share, and that’s a big accomplishment! Take time to acknowledge their courage as well as whatever you did that made them feel they could trust you.

2. Listen actively

One of the things I realised during my coaching training is that we are often in problem solving mode. And while that’s not a bad thing in itself, when it comes to humans and relationships, we could do with dialling it back a little.

Active listening, in a way is stripping your brain of any preconceptions it may have. Try not to apply your own view or lens to what the person is telling you. Try not to come up with solutions for them, or listen while thinking of how you want to respond. It’s difficult but it allows you to be present in the moment and focus on the person talking you, which will make them feel valued.

3. Show empathy

Try to understand where they are coming from and put yourself in their shoes. Again this can be difficult especially if you have never experienced a mental health issue yourself. But with your active listening, maybe you can begin to perceive that this is a difficult situation for them.

Show them you understand the distress this is causing them. A lot of times just knowing someone has heard you and shows empathy is a massive relief.

4. Treat it with confidentiality

This is particularly true for the workplace but is relevant for any sensitive conversation even when it’s personal. How would you feel if you found out your friend had told you entire group you were deeply depressed? Not good!

Be mindful that if this person has trusted you with such a personal and challenging issue, you should take it seriously. In the workplace: don’t share this with another colleague, their manager, or HR. Worse still, don’t gossip about it.

If you want to help them, ask them how you can do so or if you’re genuinely concerned for their wellbeing, warn them you’re thinking of talking to someone else.

5. Don’t take on responsibility

This can be hard, particularly for people whose character trait is responsibility. But particularly in the workplace, this is an outright bad idea (and I rarely make these kinds of statements).

To start with, you have your own workload (and potential problems) to deal with. You also need to take care of your own mental health and ensure you come to work feeling positive and engaged every day (or close enough).

It can be tempting but taking on someone else’s mental health issue is a recipe for disaster. Refer them to a professional if need be, share resources, definitely be there for them. Those are positive ways to support someone without taking on more than you can deal with.

6. Look out for yourself

This sounds counterintuitive but it’s smart to start look for signs of a toxic work culture. We all react to certain situations differently, but it might be that your colleague is suffering or has been triggered by a toxic work environment. Make sure you are aware of your own, and if you notice any signs it might be toxic, talk with a few other colleagues to get the pulse.

Ultimately if you are concerned about your working environment, you should either speak out to your manager, to HR, or leave if it is so required. And if the person who came to you with a problem is a victim of a similar situation, you might want to help them leave too.

7. Be a mentor

If you have been through something similar yourself and feel comfortable doing so, maybe it’s time for you to be a mentor. Through your experience and overcoming your own issues, you have the knowledge to help someone else navigate their challenges.

This is not the same as taking responsibility, but it is a way of you offering greater support and helping that person work their way through whatever they need to address in the moment.


So there are my top 7 tips to help you when someone confides in you about their mental health problems. I already wrote to other articles which offer more helpful advice on the same topic:

Let me know if you have any other tips by commenting or by sending me a message.

What has your experience been, has a colleague ever come to you to talk about mental health? What did you do?

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Currently working in marketing and comms in Amsterdam. Passionate about all things digital, writing, dancing, travelling and much more. Mental health blogger and advocate.

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