It's already hard enough to hash things out with people when you have a problem with them. But if you're having a conflict with a friend who's struggling with mental health problems, it gets more complicated: You want to communicate the issues you have, but you also want to be sensitive to what they're going through.
Dr. Bonior says that if your friend hasn't yet discussed their mental health with you, that's a different conversation — you'll have to be careful not to accuse them of having a condition if that's not something they've been upfront about.
But if mental health is something the both of you have already discussed, you might run the risk of the other person feeling attacked.
"If you’re trying to bring up the effect [their mental health] has on you, you will run the risk of making it seem like you shouldn’t be complaining," Dr. Bonior says. "Because you know they're struggling, so why are you making a big deal?"
To broach the subject gently, Dr. Bonior suggests carefully bringing it up in an open-ended way, with something like, "I've noticed you haven't seemed to be yourself lately, you've cancelled the last couple of times we were supposed to meet up, and that's not like you. I was disappointed and I'm worried about you."
The ultimate goal is to convey support and empathy, but also let them know what your feelings are.
Andrea Bonior, PhD
"That’s a way of bringing it up where you’re acknowledging your own disappointment, but you’re also making it clear that you’re not just going to complain about how they’re treating you," she says. "You’re also making sure that you talk to them about the fact that you’re concerned and you care about them."
Of course, not everyone is receptive to what they might perceive as criticism, no matter how gentle you are. Dr. Bonior says that even if someone shuts down when you try to talk to them, that doesn't necessarily mean that the conversation is over.
"If they shut down the conversation, it’s important for you to know that even just planting a seed is valuable," she says. "Sometimes when we’re having conversations with our friends — especially if it's about something they’re resistant to — even if they’re shutting you down, they’re still listening, they still know you’re trying to convey that message."
That might mean you circle back to this conversation later, but even if you never do, make it clear that you brought this up because you care about them and about your friendship.
"When they try to shut it down, you can say, "I understand you don’t want to talk about this right now, I just want you to know I’m here for you if you do want to talk, because I am concerned about you,'" Dr. Bonior suggests. "You’re leaving the conversation having told them that you’re there to help when they’re ready, and you’re also conveying that something isn’t right there."