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Why you should be checking in on your 'strong' friends

TODAY logo TODAY 7/13/2020 Danielle Layton

The toll of the coronavirus pandemic is more than just loss of life or medical consequences from COVID-19. Many others have been affected by the psychological trauma of living in isolation and fear.

In April, a survey conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group, a consulting and strategic research firm, shared that 55% of Americans said the coronavirus crisis has already impacted their mental health. Now psychologists are evaluating the long-term mental health consequences of living through a global crisis. A recent Psychology Today article predicted that the damage could be more “far-reaching than anyone realizes."

But mental health is not one-size-fits-all, and it's not always easy to tell when someone is struggling. Some people hold their emotions inside and appear to be the "strong friend." That person seems to have it all together and will offer themselves as a consistent and trusted confidant. But for that reason, their emotional wellness can often be overlooked by those closest to them.

“The strong friend is everybody’s go-to person, and they hurt the most. Not only are they carrying your stuff, they’re carrying their own stuff too," explained Darrah Ferguson, a licensed graduate professional counselor. "They are the ones that are most compassionate or the most empathetic and struggle to turn those qualities that they give to others onto themselves. This then leads to mental health issues like depression and low self-esteem or just feeling inadequate because they’re not able to do for themselves what they do for others.”

Related: "While we do see courage and kindness, we also see people who act out in an aggressive, offensive or inappropriate manner, both in-person and online.”

Ferguson recommended paying attention to signs that indicate when your strong friend could need a friend themselves. Irritability (i.e. mood swings), sleep irregularities (i.e. oversleeping or sleep deficiency), diet changes and negative self-talk are some of the many signs that can indicate that it's time to reach.

Below, she offers advice for starting a conversation with a strong friend that can lead to open and honest discussion.

1. Strong people are human, too.

Your strong friend is not immune from the strains of everyday life. In other words, just because they never talk about their bad days doesn’t mean they never have one. Think about the things you would want that friend to ask you and try to put yourself in their shoes. “Treat your strong friend like you would want to be treated by them,” Ferguson said. This should help shape your approach to the conversation you're trying to have.

2. Challenge those generic responses to “How are you?”

The ubiquitous phrase has become a replacement for "Hello," and very rarely will someone reply with how they are truly feeling. When someone asks “How are you?” it is often answered as a closed question rather than an open-ended one. A recent piece in The Atlantic asserts that we need better questions to ask, especially now that we are living through a pandemic. So instead of giving your strong friend the opportunity to vaguely answer, “I’m fine” and move on, Ferguson suggested challenging their answer by asking “Why are you fine?” or “What stood out to you today?” This helps keep the conversation going and shows your interest in their feelings from the start.

3. Establish the foundation of the relationship

Determine the intentions of each party in the conversation to make sure the needs and wants are clear for both. When someone in your life knows what you expect from them, they have the chance to reflect on whether they are able to meet those needs or not. This helps avoid co-dependency from both sides. Have affirming conversations by expressing how much you love them, care for them and want to see them succeed.

Bottom line: Don’t forget to check-in on the people who support you. It may be your mother, father, partner, best friend or co-worker. They probably need you just as much as you need them, even if they have trouble expressing it.

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