It hurts when someone you care about won’t open up to you. It might feel like they don’t trust you. It might feel like they don’t need your help—and it’s nice to feel needed. You might also simply feel confused, especially if they used to talk to you more.
It’s also just hard to watch someone suffer and not know how to help. What can you do for someone who won’t talk to you about their mental health?
Understanding why they won’t open up
There are lots of reasons why someone might be hesitant to open up to you:
- Maybe they don’t know what to say. Talking about mental health is hard. They might not fully understand what they’re experiencing themselves, let alone how to describe it to someone else.
- Maybe they feel ashamed. We’ve come a long way in normalizing mental illness, but there’s still a stigma attached to it. Don’t talk down to them or imply that their mental illness makes them less capable or mature. You can set an example by talking about your own mental health.
- They don’t want to scare you. They might be having dark suicidal thoughts. They might be harming themselves. As long as they don’t have a plan to commit suicide, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in immediate danger—but it might scare you to hear what they’re thinking or doing. Sometimes people living with mental illness develop a dark sense of humor as a coping skill. They may use your reaction to their jokes as a way to determine whether or not you’ll understand.
- They could be keeping secrets. Maybe they were mistreated, physically or emotionally. Maybe the person who mistreated them was a family member or someone close to you, and they’re afraid of how you will react. Will you believe them? Will you be heartbroken? Whose side will you take? They could be trying to protect you—or to protect the person who hurt them, or themselves.
- Maybe it has something to do with you. Mental health has a lot to do with relationships. Their mental health might be affecting their relationship with you, or vice versa.
- Can they trust you? When they’ve told you sensitive information in the past, how have you handled it? Did you get defensive? Did you really listen or did you just try to give them advice? Did you blame them, or minimize the pain they’re feeling? Did you make it all about you? Did you pass on private information to someone else? You may need to take a hard, honest look at yourself and see if there’s something you can do to be seen as more trustworthy.
- Maybe they just don’t want to. At the end of the day, they don’t owe you an explanation. There doesn’t have to be a reason—it’s their right to decide what to share with you and what not to. It might break your heart, but it’s important to respect their boundaries and not press the issue too much.
Of course, if they’re not telling you about their mental health, they’re probably also not telling you why. That’s okay. Just try to put yourself in their shoes and consider the reasons why they might not feel comfortable talking right now.
So what can I do?
Take a second to think about what your goal is. Are you trying to do what’s best for them? Or are you trying to make them open up so that you feel more in control? It’s certainly a lot easier to help someone when they’re willing to tell you what they need—but there are still other ways to help in the meantime.
Respect their decision to not open up to you. Tell them that you understand how hard it is to talk about mental health. Let them know you’re there for them when they’re ready to talk.
Understand that they may never be ready to talk to you about it. Don’t take it personally—just find other ways to support them. Spend quality time with them. Have fun together. Watch a TV show together, or grab something to eat. Support their treatment any way you can. Offer to take them to an appointment with their therapist or doctor—especially if it’s their first time.
If and when they do open up, don’t jump at the chance to give advice or tell them how you feel. Just listen. Reflect back what you’re hearing and ask questions to make sure you understand. If they do ask you for advice, make it clear that you’re sharing your own perspective—don’t act like you know best, or that your solution is the only way.