10 October 2022 is World Mental Health Day, and World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced the theme as “Make Mental Health & Wellbeing for All a Global Priority” [1]. WHO emphasises the need for accessibility to mental health services, as we inevitably struggle with mental health concerns from time to time. This includes experiencing high levels of stress and worsening mental health conditions. Apart from professional help, research has shown that people are more likely to turn to their loved ones and friends as the first line of support. As such, YOU play an important role in the facilitation of wellbeing for the people you love and care for!

You can do that in three simple ways: Notice signs of distress, provide active listening, and link them to help resources where applicable.

Signs of Distress

  • Withdrawal from school/work/get-togethers or any social activities/outings [2]
  • Sudden changes in sleep patterns [2]
  • Changes in eating patterns (not eating well, or overeating) [2
  • Frequent emotional breakdowns or outbursts [2]
  • Frequent unexplained aches and pains (Eg. stomachaches, headaches) [2]
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or interests they once had [2]
  • Sudden changes in their behaviour patterns or personas (eg. someone who used to be bubbly becomes sullen out of the blue) [2]

How to Practice Active Listening

1. Allow them to speak first and keep the conversation on their story, not ours.

We may want to fix their problems by giving advice, or we may direct the conversation towards our own experiences and struggles. As a result, we may have a tendency to jump in as the distressed individual is sharing their troubles. However, they might simply be looking for someone to lend a listening ear. Although it may be well-intentioned, it may end up invalidating the person’s situation. 

Instead, it is helpful to hold ourselves back, and give them full attention. Be present in the conversation and ask them questions regarding what they have shared to encourage them to open up more. 

Being able to get everything off their chest and verbalizing deep-seated thoughts and emotions is rather healing in and of itself.

2. Ask open-ended questions

Asking open-ended questions can better facilitate the flow of the conversation, rather than asking “yes or no” questions. Close-ended questions usually limit the information we can learn about the other person’s perspective and their situation [3].

Open-ended questions we can ask, can be about how they feel, what they’re thinking, what they’ve tried and whether our responses were helpful or unhelpful.

Examples include

  • “How does that make you feel”
  • “What are some fears you have that led you to behave this way?”
  • “You mentioned ___, could you tell me more about it?”

3. Paraphrase what they had said

We can reflect to them what we have heard from them to assure the other person that we have been listening to what they have said. It also gives us a chance to know if we have accurately understood their thoughts, ideas and emotions, to prevent likelihood of miscommunication [3]. 

4. Maintain an open body language

At least 65% of our communication is non-verbal, either through facial expressions, speech intonations or gestures [4]. Therefore, it is important for us to adopt an open stance when speaking to those in distress, like relaxing our posture, facing them, and making eye contact. On the other hand, we should avoid adopting a closed stance, like turning away from them, looking at your phone and avoiding eye contact. This can in turn express a disinterest in the conversation.

5. Be comfortable with silence

It is not uncommon for people to view silence as awkward. This often leads to an urge to fill the silence with our own thoughts and opinions. Appropriate silence, on the other hand, gives the person time to think and reflect before answering your question. If they are crying, silence can also be appropriate in giving the individual space to release pent up emotions [5]. 

Showing Support to Someone in Distress

When we comfort others, it helps to be mindful of words we use when speaking to those in distress, in order to not add to their already vulnerable state. Here are some common mistakes we tend to make, and how we can respond better!

  • What not to say?
  • It’s not a big deal / Everything’s going to be okay!
  • I know how you feel
  • Everyone goes through this / Other people have gone through worse
  • It do be that way sometimes…
  • What to say?
  • That sounds rough… / It sounds like you are going through a difficult time…
  • Can you tell me how you feel?
  • What can I do to help you?
  • I relate to that too… Is there another way we can look at the situation?

Being Our Own Support

Just as we wish to help others who are going through a hard time, we need to be aware of the effects on our own mental health. To practice self-care when showing support, we can draw clear boundaries such as:

  1. Being careful not to make promises we cannot keep 
    • Promises like “I’ll always be there for you” and “You can call me anytime!” can be misleading as it is often not realistic for us to devote 24/7 of our time to our friends. Furthermore, broken promises can cause already-distressed individuals to spiral further
  2.  Communicating your boundaries 
    • We may want to be present for our friends but often we may find ourselves unable to sustain a helpful conversation with them due to certain circumstances (Eg. long tiring day at work). In this case, we can choose to communicate that with the other party:
    • Examples include:
      • “Thanks for sharing this with me! It’s been a really tough day for me though, is it okay if I read this properly and reply tomorrow?”
      • “By the way, if you’re texting me at night and I did not reply to you, just know that I was probably asleep!”
      • “I usually unwind by around 11pm, so I do not check my phone then.”

Sources of Support

If we find ourselves having difficulty assisting those in distress, or we identify as a person in distress, feel free to access any of these resources:


  • Free access to self-help and educational resources

Samaritans of Singapore (S.O.S) for those feeling suicidal

CARE Singapore’s Whatsapp Service

  • Call 6978 2728
  • Available Monday to Friday

Singapore Counselling Centre


[1] World Health Organisation. (2022). World Mental Health Day 2022 – Make mental health & well-being for all a global priority. World Health Organisation. https://www.who.int/news-room/events/detail/2022/10/10/default-calendar/world-mental-health-day-2022—make-mental-health-and-well-being-for-all-a-global-priority

[2] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2022). Warning Signs and Risk Factors for Emotional Distress. SAMHSA. https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/disaster-distress-helpline/warning-signs-risk-factors 

[3] Cuncic, A. (2022). What is Active Listening? verywellmind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-active-listening-3024343 

[4] Pennsylvania Department of Health. Unit 6: Effective oral communication. FEMA Effective Communication. https://www.health.pa.gov/topics/Documents/Emergency%20Preparedness/Nonverbal%20Cues%20-%20FEMA%20Effective%20Communication.pdf 

[5] Cox, J. (2022). The Hidden Benefits of Silence. PsychCentral. https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-hidden-benefits-of-silence#boosts-creativity