How to Help Someone in Distress

Everyone struggles with mental health sometimes. If you know someone who is struggling, it’s only natural to want to help them.

But it can be hard to know where to start and what to say.

In this guide, you’ll learn about the signs and get step-by-step prompts for starting a conversation about mental health.

Signs of Distress

Overall, changes in personality, mood, performance, actions, or habits can signal that a person is struggling with mental health.

Here are some specific examples to watch out for:

  • Irritability, agitation, excessive worry or crying
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Loss of energy/desire to do things
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Poor hygiene
  • A change in eating, exercise, sleeping, social, or academic behaviors
  • Increased alcohol or drug use

Things You Can Do To Help

In general, here are some things to do help someone through a tough time:

  • Educate yourself
  • Be available
  • Act sooner rather than later
  • Start the conversation. Be open to talking about it
  • Listen carefully and pay attention
  • Ask questions
  • Be non-judgmental, patient, calm, and accepting
  • Express concern and support
  • Be natural, be yourself
  • Ask what you can do to help
  • Recognize your boundaries
  • Ask about suicidal thoughts and take them seriously
  • Involve others if needed
  • Suggest resources and offer to help
  • Problem solve and create a plan for action
  • Stay involved. Check in with them
  • Take care of yourself

Step 1: Start the Conversation

Here are some ways you could start a conversation with someone you are concerned about:

  • “I’ve noticed [example of a change], and I’m wondering how you’re doing.”
  • “I just want to check in and see how things are going for you.”
  • “I’d like to talk about [something I noticed]. Is that OK?”
  • “I care, and I’m concerned.”

Step 2: Questions to Better Understand

Encourage the person to open up and help you better understand what’s going on:

  •  “Help me understand what’s going on.”
  • “Tell me more about ____.”
  •  “Seems like ____. Is that accurate?”
  • “How is this affecting other areas of your life (e.g. eating, sleeping, relationships, school)?”

Step 3: Is This an Emergency?

Is the person behaving in a threatening or violent manner?

Are you worried about the person’s safety?

You can directly ask these questions:

  • “Are you thinking about hurting or killing yourself?”
  • “Sometimes when people are really struggling, they think about hurting or killing themselves. Have you been thinking about either of these?”
Yes, it's an Emergency

First, try to stay calm yourself. It’s a good sign that they trust you enough to tell you they have thoughts of hurting themselves or others.

Some things you can say are:

  • “Right now, I’m concerned about you and want to make sure you get what you need. I’m not the best person for this, so let’s contact someone who is.”
  • “Let’s figure out together how to get you the help you need right now.”
  • “Help is available. Let’s get it.”

Give them 24/7 Emergency Crisis Resources.

Check back with the person at a later date: “How have things been going since we last talked?”

24/7 Emergency Resources

If it is an emergency, please do not hesitate to call 911.

Crisis Response for Southeast Minnesota
Call 1.844.CRISIS2 (1.844.274.7472)

Great Rivers 2-1-1
Call 1.800.362.8255

Crisis Text Line
Text “HOME” to 741741

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1.800.273.TALK (8255)

Steve Fund (Support for Young People of Color)
Text “STEVE” to 741741

The Trevor Project (Support for LGBTQIA+)

  • Call 1.866.488.7386
  • Text “START” to 678678

Advocacy Center of Winona (Support for Sexual and Gender-Based Violence)
Call 507.452.4453

No, They are Ok For Now

You are not concerned about immediate safety, but you can see that they are having a difficult time and could use some support.

It’s a good idea to simply ask: “How can I best support/help you right now?”

Work the Problem

  • “What would be helpful today? What would better look like?”
  • “What has worked for you in the past?”
  • “Would you like to talk about some options?”

Make a Plan and Take Action

  • “What’s the next step? What’s one thing you can do in the next 24 hours?”
  • “Who are the people in your life that can support you in this?”
  • “What resources would be most helpful in this situation?”


Give the person the Mental Health Information, Support and Crisis Resources handout and consider making a written plan of action

Check back with the person at a later date: “How have things been going since we last talked?”

Mental Health Support & Resources

There are many counselors in the Winona and the surrounding communities who can help support your mental health needs. Please note this list is not exhaustive.

WSU Resources

Winona Counseling Options

La Crosse Counseling Options

Austin Counseling Options

Websites about Mental Health