How are you, really? Simple ways to check in with friends’ mental health
10 October 2020
When did you last check in with your friends—and no—watching their Instagram stories does not count. Here's how to initiate those hard-to-have mental health conversations with your loved ones
A wise Internet meme once said, “Check on your strong friends. Check on your quiet friends. Check on your ‘happy’ friends. Check on your creative friends. Check on each other.”
While watching Instagram stories has become the de facto way of keeping tabs on friends, we have hopefully by now, established that scrolling through your friends’ accounts is not going to always give you an accurate read on their current state of mental health. Our lives on social media present but one—and sometimes the best—of many facets of the lived experience. After all, who is going to post a shot of themselves with greasy hair and unbrushed teeth at four in the afternoon because they’re in the throes of a depressive episode? The truth is, nobody really knows how anyone is, unless we ask them.
The importance of a simple How are you, really? cannot be overstated in these overwhelming times where a text or phone call could prove lifesaving. Culturally as Asians, we skirt around checking in with loved ones for fear of coming across as too nosy or overindulgent about feelings. We worry about our solutions not being helpful enough, or may have little emotional bandwidth of our own to be there for them. But as anyone on the receiving end of a ‘thinking of you’ text will tell you: the best relationships are not built on perfectly curated words. Your presence alone could be the energy a loved one needs to take that next breath, to move them from one moment to another.
Narelle Kheng, musician
“Mental health is health. It means taking care of my mind, my body, my spiritual and emotional state. Understanding, strengthening it, and having better control over my mind and myself. It means not walking through life like a zombie, or allowing external things to control me. It means learning how to create a live that is truly satisfying and fulfilling for myself and it means being able to help and give more to those around me.
In the same way we have learnt to become healthier and live longer through research and understanding of exercise, medicine, diet etc, we can also learn to tone, strengthen and utilise our minds better through understanding and conversation. The health of our mental state is what gives us motivation, love, resilience, kindness, passion, will and all the good things that makes life worth living. If we can understand things like neuroplasticity, we can understand that ours minds are like muscle in our body, they can stretch and grow with the right training; and it’s an aspect we gravely underestimate and underutilise. Mental resilience also strengthens our physical health and our ability to combat viruses and sickness. To talk about mental health is to value humans as humans and not as objects or pawns.”
Narelle has come to recognise her mental health triggers, sharing that she knows her mood is low when she becomes “less chatty and sociable, tired, lethargic, unmotivated, agitated. “When I feel like crap and music sounds like shit and all I want to do is watch sitcom reruns or playing games that distract me. If I leave these unchecked I will most definitely fall into a depressive phase. But one thing that really helps me see if I’m feeling bad is to remember what it feels like when I do feel motivated and in sync with myself. Then I know, hey I’m definitely not my best right now, but I know I’ve been and can be better.”
How does she get there? “It really depends on what the issue is, but checking in with yourself is always the first step in identifying the problem. If we don’t know what is wrong we’d most likely keep grinding the horse and continue to wear ourselves down. Often we have defensive mechanisms that will prevent us from really seeing our true problem. So I try to journal/meditate to break through those barriers. If not I suss out what is it I feel like doing. Do I want to go out? Do I want to lie down? What do I feel like eating specifically? I take care of these core issues first then I try and see why is it I’m feeling this way. Sometimes I can figure it out, maybe I’ve lost confidence because I’m affected by something someone said, maybe I’ve really just burnt myself out by overworking and all I need to do is rest. Or maybe I’m lost and I need some good advice. Maybe I need to go get some exercise. Sometimes I can’t, but I try to remember that if I keep trying eventually I will. And even when you feel like you won’t, you really will.”
Just being there without judgement is important, and to assist them and not control them. We don’t know what someone else is going through, but we can help them figure it out, whether it’s helping assist their physical needs like food and comfort, or helping them talk through a complicated situation.
“Just remember that it’s not about whether you’re right about their issue, but how you can help them overcome it,” says Narelle.
Rohaizatul Azhar, fashion lecturer
“Mental health to me is about having open communication, not just with people who are close to me about how I’m doing, but also with my own self. It’s being able to take a break from crazy schedules and be ok with it. I have to admit that I am still trying to find this balance,” says Rohaizatul Azhar. “Talking things out, especially expressing how I’m feeling allows me to hear myself and admitting that there is an issue or a problem, which sometimes can be hard. In general, I think there is a stigma to talking about mental health and people, especially men, don’t talk about this openly because they’re afraid of being judged. We need to create a safe space for this.”
Rohai finds that when experiencing in a low mood, his sleep is affected, leading him to feel less well-rested. “I know when my mental health is low when I cannot bring myself to answering text messages (because that would lead to possibly having a conversation, and I’m just not in the mood). Also, my work gets affected because I’m not as productive and I find myself getting anxious about deadlines but still procrastinating.”
He overcomes low, overwhelming or depressive moments by throwing himself into work, “because it needs to be done. But there have been days when I completely ignore everything (social media, WhatsApp, emails, texts) and just take the time to just be with myself. This could mean taking long showers, or just walking around on my own in my neighbourhood. I also find doing a HIIT workout helpful as it helps me to channel my aggression into something else.”
The best thing you could do to support someone like Rohai? “Just to listen, and be there for me. I don’t need solutions, and I don’t need people to help me solve the issues. I just need to know that I’m not dealing with this on my own.”
Sarah Bagharib, humanitarian communications specialist and founder of Crazycat
“To me, mental health means having the ability to feel worthy of love, peace and happiness. Mental health also means being able to take care of myself so that I can take care of others. I think it’s so important to openly talk about mental health because we need to normalise the conversations surrounding mental health. We need to break the stigma surrounding mental health so that more people can be aware that they are not alone on their journeys, and that there’s absolutely nothing wrong and shameful about seeking help when we need it,” says Sarah Bagharib.
As important as it is to be checked-in with your kids, partner, and colleagues, it’s vital to also know your own triggers and signs that your mood or mental health is waning. For Sarah “the first warning sign is intense tightening in my chest that’ll cause shortness of breath. This happens a lot when I feel overwhelmed and if/when I spiral, I get really lightheaded and feel like the walls are caving in on me. That’ll usually lead to full-blown anxiety attacks.”
In her lowest moments, Sarah leans on gratitude. “I remind myself of everything and everyone I’m grateful for and this usually helps me gain perspective. I also pray, do guided meditations, journal and see my therapist.” To be a supportive friend, she says it’s about, “simply checking in—dropping a text to ask how I’ve been and letting me know that the person is there if I need a listening ear. Sending me bubble tea would make me feel extra loved and cared for too.”
Aarika Lee, marketing director
“Mental health to me is taking note of how I’m really feeling and coping with the stresses that I have in my life,” says Aarika Lee. “The more something is spoken about, the more understanding there will be around it. It’s important for everyone to know that they’re not alone in trying to cope with what is happening in their lives. Talking about things helps to normalise conversations and will hopefully encourage more people to reach out to each other, as well as seek out professional help if and when they need it too.”
Aarika has learned to pull back and recognise the warning signs when her mental health is declining. “My temper becomes very short, I don’t feel rested even though I feel like I’ve slept a good number of hours. I also find myself needing to get away from things and find a quiet space. What’s really helped me is having a circle of people that I can trust and being able to go to them to unload when I need to. They’re my go-tos for that injection of positivity that I sometimes just can’t access on my own. Also! Taking a long warm shower and crying it out truly does wonders. I think sometimes we feel like we have to maintain our composure no matter how stressed out we are and we bottle up all our emotions—that’s just an unrealistic expectation for our bodies.”
She counts on hugs and a listening, non-judgemental ear for these hard moments.
Rebekah Lin, co-founder of The Social Co
“Mental health is an everyday conversation that needs to happen. When you see someone with their arm in a sling, or when they have a cold, it is natural to ask if they are ok, and wish them a speedy recovery. But because mental health conditions are often invisible, most people don’t know what to say, or how to ask “how are you?”,” Rebekah Lin explains.
“There are days when I feel completely deflated, or days when I don’t sleep well at all for weeks. This makes me irritable and easily agitated. Or days when getting out of bed takes a lot of effort.” Lin uses music as a form of therapy. “Music is a big part of my life. When I’m in a low or overwhelmed state of mind, I have to make a deliberate choice to listen to happier and more positive song choices. I also talk to a few close friends and sometimes just having them there brings great comfort.”
Other ways to check in with friends and loved ones
“Human life is constantly challenged by adversity: some created by others and some by our own design. It is a constant, unavoidable facet of life,” says Dr Annabelle Chow of Annabelle Psychology. “Acknowledge and accept that negative thoughts or emotions will always arise naturally during adversity, and it is perfectly normal to feel or think the way we do.” Instead of avoiding or burying our emotions, Dr Chow implores us to dig deep, and take the time to understand the reasons behind why you or someone close to you is feeling down or negative.
Dr Chow shares some simple yet effective conversation starters:
“I’ve not seen you in awhile, how are things recently?
“What have you been up to?”
“You seem a little down today, do you want to talk about it?”
“Are you feeling alright?”
When to escalate your mental health journey and speak to a counsellor, psychiatrist or psychologist?
“It’s about the degree of distress,” says Dr Francis Ngui of Adam Road Medical. If you’re finding that your anxiety, depression, worry or low mood (or that of your loved one’s) is affecting “relationships, studies or work to a level and duration that halts normal day to day activities, and coping strategies are not working, it’s time to seek professional help.”
“There is no therapy or process that guarantees the same outcome in every individual. However, if you feel that you need support, reach out to your ‘tribe’. Even if you don’t ordinarily consider them to be part of your support network, we often do not realise how many members of our tribe—our family, friends, colleagues, peers—anyone who is a part of your larger network—actually do care about our safety and well-being. If that doesn’t help, consider seeking professional mental health support from a qualified psychologist,” says Dr Chow.
Instead of ‘staying strong‘ and hoping that phrase will magically undo pain and trauma, let’s encourage each other to open up; to throw open the doors of the basement of our hearts and gently lift this pain into the light. True strength isn’t about suffering in silence and holding back the tears, it’s about being brave in sharing our burdens. It begins with us.
Director: Vanessa Caitlin
Videography: Hazirah Rahim
Sound: David Bay
Beauty director: Alli Sim
Beauty editor: Dana Koh
Digital editor: Pakkee Tan
You are not alone. For mental health support in Singapore, visit the Singapore Association for Mental Health. For mental health support in Malaysia, visit the Malaysian Mental Health Association.