It is hard to know how to talk to someone when you are worried about their wellbeing, clinical psychologist Sarah Donaldson helps with some strategies.

With the growing openness about mental health and wellbeing more people are willing to step in to support others if they recognise they are stressed or unwell. However this is still a challenging situation
and always one of the top questions I get asked is, how to do I bring this up with someone?

Usually this is because they are worried they will say it wrongly or that the other person may react negatively. But you do not need to be a mental health professional to check in on someone.

First, I would say better to ask than not ask. There is no wrong way to check in on someone as long as you are genuine, respectful and non-judgemental.

Choose your moment to have this talk. Pick a time when you are both not wound up, busy with other distractions or tired. Possibly take the stance of coming from it being about both of you.

Asking an open question or normalising it can make it less threatening such as saying: “lots of people in your situation are finding it hard going, how are things going for you”? Or reflecting about changes or behaviours you have observedis another lead in. “You haven’t beencoming out lately or playing tennis anymore and you seem a bit down compared to normal, what’s going on?”

Try not to use the phrase “are you ok?” because most people will automatically say “yip I’m ok” whereas an open question can get them talking.

If someone dismisses your question at least they know the invitation is there and that you have made it known that you are supportive should they want to open up later.

If the person is your manager or boss this can feel more intimidating. If you feel like you have a reasonably open relationship with them, you can still check in as one person genuinely caring about another person, regardless of rank.

If you feel like this may inflame the situation it could be an option to talk to their partner or another senior person in the team to share your concerns and observations. Or the other option is to talk to one of the support services to ask for guidance about how to manage the situation. They often support people indirectly through others.

Approaching a partner if you are concerned about their wellbeing:

  • These can be tricky conversations and sometimes as a couple we are quick to come out from our corner of the ring ready to defend our position.
  • Choose your moment to have this talk. Pick a time when you are both not wound up, busy with other distractions or tired. Possibly take the stance of coming from it being about both of you.
  • If things are tough right now, you are both probably finding it challenging. If you ask them to share what they are finding overwhelming and you can acknowledge this, they may be more likely to then listen more to what you are finding hard.
  • Try hard to set it up at the start of the conversation that you will try to talk about issues without blaming one another or interrupting the other.
  • It’s really key when you are both taking turns to get stuff off your chest that you both try to listen, without defending your part in it, at least initially. Then it’s about what can “we” do to change this, what’s our plan and what can we do or not do to support each other.
  • Even small specific changes can make a big difference, such as when you get home “tell me what kind of day you had”, take a day off that week, get in someone to help work out a plan.
  • If talking about it always turns into a fight, you can initially use that dedicated time to write down separately what you think the main challenges are, then share or swap to read. Either way you are trying to get on the same page and come back to- a plan about what can we do to change or improve this.

Recognising the signs

Have you noticed changes in someone you know that make you wonder if they are ok? In our rural community we are getting better and better at recognising the signs of distress in others. But if you are unsure of the signs check out this checklist:


Initiate a conversation/contact with them. You don’t need to be an expert, just check in. It’s really hard to reach out, so you take the lead.

  • Ask the question or issue an invitation to talk: “you don’t seem yourself right now, what’s up?” “It’s a tough season and lots of people are struggling, how are you?”
  • Be a good listener, by actively focusing, not interrupting and gently encouraging them to keep talking.
  • Acknowledge their distress, don’t minimise it or play it down.
  • Offer hope and let them know you and others are there to support them to move forward with a plan.
  • Ask “what do you need right now?” “how can I help?”.
  • Offer suggestions of other practical support – farm tasks, food, child care, sorting break or relief staff, calling in a dairy consultant, book or go with them to appointments.
  • Arrange to store any guns off-property as a precaution.
  • Get them out doing activities that help wellness. For ideas check out:
  • Sarah Donaldson is a clinical psychologist specialising in rural mental health.

More help

When it seems even after talking the other person still seem to be pre-occupied or is down/worried or you are worried about their safety call upon others to help support or take next steps. Options for support include:

GP & practice managers

Rural Support Trust 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

Crisis Assessment Team (CAT) 24/7 through local DHB Suicide Prevention Helpline – 0508 828 865 1737 (text or call to speak to mental health professional)

Other resources Helpline 0800 111 757 (good for younger ones)