Trying to Help Friends & Family Dealing with Mental Health, but Coming Off Judgmental

There are people who I love that I can tell are struggling severely with their mental health. I want to help. I do. But I have now been told – again – that I need to stop being so judgmental.

I was a foster parent for about eight years and primarily worked with children who had higher behavioral health needs. While exhausting, I loved this work. With kids there was so much I could do – from tools to help them learn to regulate their emotions, to teaching coping skills, to making sure they got therapy or saw a psychiatrist.

But adults? Adults are a bit more complicated. And as it turns out, I can’t make them go to therapy.

OK y’all, buckle in because this is going to be a long one.

I can’t help but think “it doesn’t feel like love”

I want to be supportive and understanding when someone is facing stress that makes them negative or mental health challenges. But here’s the thing. It doesn’t feel like love to not say something. It doesn’t feel like support to not step in.

It doesn’t feel right to just sit back and watch someone continue to inch closer each day to a full acceptance of toxic stress, negativity and mental unhealth. I just want to shake them and say “Wake the f*ck up! Things do not have to be like this.”

How I’ve tried to help

I’m aware that yelling at someone might be counter productive, but I want to share what have been my go-to tactics. They’re not all bad, but I’m starting to see there is a lot of room for growth.

  • I’ve tried to listen. This one is great, but listening alone doesn’t really change things.
  • I’ve tried to hint at things. Hinting almost never works. Unclear communication is not good communication. Usually they don’t get what I’m hinting at and I just come off as bitchy. (0/10 do not recommend.)
  • I’ve tried sharing how therapy has helped me and looked for other ways to relate in hopes of creating a safer space and reminding them that there is no shame in the therapy game.
  • I’ve asked questions. Have you ever thought about seeing a therapist? Do you think you’d benefit from a therapist?
  • I’ve tried to be straight forward. This usually comes after all of the above are getting no where. I start to feel like maybe I just need to rip the Band-Aid off because clearly nothing is clicking and I cannot just sit back and watch them self destruct. Right? RIGHT!? These comments usually start out like “it’s clear that you are really stressed out and in a negative space all the time. Therapy could really help with that.” As the person is not receptive the comments move towards “At this point you are literally choosing to be miserable. You’re constantly negative and doing nothing about it and it feels toxic and stressful to be around you.” Typically the response to these types of comments is defensive and argumentative. These comments have yet to really make things click for someone.
  • I’ve tried setting boundaries. Limiting contact with someone who really drains you can be beneficial to you. Space can give you time to re-center, re-fill your emotional bucket and protect your energy. But to be clear the boundaries are for you, not them. (In fact withholding love and affection as a form of punishment seems pretty toxic.)

The thing is, more often than not when I try to address this topic with someone I start off hopeful, but eventually the person ends up feeling offended, defensive and/or the conversation somehow transitions into an argument. This is the opposite of the intended end goal.

So what’s the problem?

I think the biggest problem is that I can’t fix people. My approach is wrong and I’m learning there’s a me problem at play.

I get so frustrated when someone doesn’t want to better themselves. It is so hard for me to understand. I wonder if they even know how bad it is. Have they accepted that this is how life is for them? Do they just not want to be healthier or do the work? (As I write these questions I am realizing more so where I am seeming a bit judgmental.)

Therapy changed my life & it could help you too, right?

Have you ever learned or experienced something so life-changing that once you know it, it’s actually harder for you to relate to people who don’t get it or want to? That’s kind of how therapy was for me in some ways.

Pre-therapy me was a people pleaser extraordinaire, had no boundaries, never understood why traumatic experiences kept recurring in my life and didn’t even have the self awareness to realize that I had no self awareness.

I used to wear “I never cry” like a badge of honor because I thought it meant I was strong. One of the greatest take-aways I learned from therapy is that emotional unhealth does not equal strength. Rather true emotional strength lies in our ability to process our emotions in a healthy way and to communicate our feelings honestly and effectively to others.

The thing is, being more self-aware also makes you more aware of, and better able to recognize, unhealthy behaviors in others. This is where it can be problematic (for me) because as much as I want to fix myself when I recognize things I need to work on, I also want to fix the people around me. It comes from a place of love. I just want everyone to be happy and healthy! I really do. It pains me to see people suffering, especially when I feel like I know what they need (yep, and now we’re circling back to things I need to work on again lol).

Why care now about coming off as judgmental?

Aside from the fact that no one wants to the seen as a judgy Judy (it’s not a good look), you might be wondering what has lead me to now re-think all of this and why it matters so much. Well, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard that I am being judgmental when I’m trying to help. But it is the first time I’ve heard it and thought – maybe there is some truth I need to consider here.

Some backstory

Ok, let me back track a little and tell you about the first person who used to tell me that I was judgmental when I tried to help. My younger sister, Lizzy, struggled a LOT with her mental health. She had a tremendous amount of trauma in her past and battled addiction on-and-off. I always wanted to help her. Desperately I wanted to help her. I really believed that eventually she would heal, we’d all would get along and everything would work out for the best.


I spent countless hours talking with Lizzy, trying to guide her, letting her know what I had found helpful, trying to relate where I could and create a safe space. I tried desperately to inspire her and help her, but I think the harder I tried the more judged she felt.

She died just before her 30th birthday in May of 2019. And in the end I realized two things:

  1. That it wasn’t up to me to change her.
  2. I wish I’d spent less time trying to fix her and more time making her feel loved where she was.

I knew that for Lizzy to get better she had to want to save herself – like REALLY want to get healthy and be able to see a better future for herself. I just couldn’t understand for the life of me why she didn’t. I thought that if I helped her – offered financial support, gave her rides, helped when she asked and talked her ears off that something would eventually click.

I know I can’t go back and wonder “what if” but I can reflect on this experience and grow from it.

After Lizzy died I did reflect a bit. At the time I walked away with the peace that at least I had tried everything on my end. I found some comfort knowing that I had done my best to try to help her and the rest was out of my control.

More recently I am realizing where I have some room for improvement moving forward. Lizzy used to say that I was so judgmental of her. I wasn’t trying to be judgmental. I was trying to help, so I concluded that this was her defensive way of rejecting help and not that I was actually coming off as judgmental. (And as I write these words I realize where I was not really listening and validating her experience, but perhaps that’s a topic for another day.)

So fast forward to present day

When I heard again, from someone who seems to be struggling, the same words, the same criticism it sort of struck a nerve. After hearing again, from someone else, that I come off as judgmental when I am trying to help someone who is battling mental health issues I knew I needed to do something.

Did I quickly realize this was a me problem and apologize? Lord no. I started googling “how to talk to someone who is struggling with mental health,” “how to deal with negative people,” “how to help someone who is stressed and depressed,” etc.

I was sure that I would find article after credible article about how I was handling things exactly right and some next level steps for when a loved one is resistant, not taking accountability and refusing to get help. (We must be in need of firmer action right?)

After switching up search terms a few times and continuing not to find what I had expected, I started to realize that maybe I wasn’t handling things as perfectly as I thought.

My confusing thoughts about how to help someone who is depressed, stressed and in a negative space

I don’t want to enable someone or be a crutch. I don’t want to backtrack my own progress in healthy boundaries. I need to be honest with the people that I love. I need to protect my energy. These are some of the thoughts that have driven my previous responses to friends and family struggling with depression or other mental health issues.

So when all I could find after I asked google what to do, were things like “listen, offer to help with tasks and don’t judge” I found myself in a bit of an internal argument. “So basically do nothing?” I thought. “Be a crutch and then sit back and let them self destruct?” I started to feel a bit annoyed with my buddy Google after that. It kind of went downhill then for a bit. Maybe I just need to “set some boundaries” and cut them off entirely I thought.

Google had another lesson for me

So back to Google… “how to deal with toxic people,” “when to cut someone off who refuses to get mental health help,” etc. Well Google had another lesson for me – starting with re-framing my definition of “toxic people.”

So what is a toxic person?

I had always thought that toxic just meant someone who stresses you out or has a negative energy. While a toxic person will stress you out, there is more to it than that. Someone truly toxic might manipulate you, gas light you, intentionally ruin things for you or say mean things to you. When I rethink toxic to meaning someone who is emotionally or physically harming me, well now this person struggling with their mental health doesn’t fit the bill.

Sometimes it is easier to cut difficult people out of my life than to work through the challenges. While I am still all for setting healthy boundaries, cutting someone off entirely when they are struggling is not a healthy response.

My next steps to be a better support

  • Check out a support group. I found a support group through NAMI that is for friends and family of those dealing with mental health conditions. I am planning to check this out and hoping that it will provide some opportunity to grow in being a better support.
  • Focus more on listening and less on fixing. Honestly this one is going to be a challenge and take a while, but awareness is the first step right?
  • Be open. I am working to let go of thinking that I know what is best for people and receptive to learning and doing better.

What should you do if someone you know is depressed, negative and always stressed out?

If you made it this far you know I’m not the one to ask. I still have a ways to go myself.

But here are a few resources for friends and family of persons with mental health conditions who want to help and be supportive

Published by Erin Mullen

I am currently a senior in the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University. I am focusing my degree on Public Relations and Rhetorical Advocacy. I am a member of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) and am the Director of Creative Integration on the Bateman team, which is an elite group of students who researches, plans, and implements a public relations campaign to compete at a national level. Graduating from the Midwest College of Cosmetology in 2005, I have been working as a hairstylist for about seven years. I love the industry and am a strong believer in the importance of constant and continuing education. Communication, along with the hair/ fashion industry are two of my greatest passions; and I would ultimately love to find a career that merges both worlds together.

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