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How to recognise distress in others and what to do

Do you suspect a friend, family member or colleague is feeling distressed?

Here’s how to spot the signs and what you can do to help.

Common signs of distress in others

Loss of joy

They may no longer appear to enjoy activities they used to love.

Loss of social connection

They might connect with others less, or appear withdrawn or less confident than usual. They could seem unusually quiet or withdrawn or not fully participate in conversations. At a time when we are connecting mostly online you might see or hear from them less.

Loss of optimism about the future

They might say things like “there’s no point in anything” or show a lack of interest in the future. You might notice that they have stopped looking forward to things.

Negativity

They might find it hard to see the positive in life - and express negative views frequently about different areas like relationships or work.

Constantly tired

They may complain of bad sleep or appear to be tired a lot.

Changes at work

They might stop meeting deadlines, lack focus, or show a drop in personal hygiene or standard of dress.

Volatile emotions

They may get frustrated easily, be irritable, or have angry outbursts.

Lethargy or ‘flatness’

They might seem emotionally flat, listless, lethargic, or generally lacking in energy.

Alcohol or drug use

They might be using alcohol or recreational drugs excessively.

Suicidal thoughts

They might begin to express suicidal thoughts or intentions of self-harm.

If you suspect someone is suicidal, please call or text 1737 for help if you’re in New Zealand or call 1800 512 348 if you’re in Australia for advice from trained counsellors. These support lines are free, and are open 24/7.

What to do if someone is distressed

If you suspect someone is distressed, you may want to ‘fix the problem’.

The desire to problem-solve is normal and comes from a good place – but trying to be someone’s therapist or rush in with solutions might make them feel worse.

Instead, try one of these strategies to show support

Ask

Asking “How are you?” and really meaning it, is an important first step. Sometimes people need a little bit more to open up, so you could add “Hey it’s been a rough time lately and I just wanted to check in and see, how are you are doing?”. If they don’t want to talk, all you can do is respect that - but you could add “If you do ever want to talk about anything, I’m here”.

Let them know you care

The simple act of telling someone you’re here for them and that you care is more powerful than you might think. Just knowing that you’re in their corner might help them feel less alone.

Listen

Listen without judgement or offering solutions. Remember not to interrupt with advice. The urge to offer quick fixes or tips is understandable, but it’s usually unhelpful. Leave the advice-giving to the professionals - or at least until you have heard them out, and asked if they want any suggestions.

Provide reassurance

It could help to let your friend know that you don’t see them as weak or as having a character flaw. You could tell them that you admire their strength in trying to cope with their distress, and that there’s nothing shameful about feeling the way they do - if you think they do feel bad about themselves. The main point here is to offer acceptance - let them know you accept them. Simply listening in a non-judgemental way is a great place to start.

Don’t take things personally

If your friend seems upset or angry with you, try not to take it personally. Distress can make people do and say things they wouldn’t usually say or do.

Just be there

Continue to be there for the person by assisting them to access help if needed (e.g. calling or texting 1737 with them, or suggesting it to them), brainstorming with them a list of things that might help (if they want to do this), planning some fun activities, or simply ensuring you keep checking in and being in touch.

If you suspect someone is feeling distressed, please call or text 1737 for help if you’re in New Zealand or call 1800 512 348 if you’re in Australia for advice from trained counsellors. These support lines are free, and are open 24/7.

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