Checking In On Your Friends: Why & How, Or, Being Better Friends
Content Note for discussions of mental health/illness, other disabilities, suicide, etc.
Yes, you’re a bad friend if you aren’t checking in on any of your friends regularly.
There, I said it. I know… you’ve probably read a bunch of social media posts claiming we shouldn’t assume people are bad friends. But as your mentally ill and otherwise disabled friend who has suicidal thoughts in at least the back of my mind at all times, I’m here to tell you — yes, we are bad friends if we are looking for every excuse under the sun to explain why we don’t even check in with friends on a regular basis.
This doesn’t mean that you run down your entire Facebook “friends” list weekly and check in with everyone. It’s not asking you to ignore your own needs or mental state to offer yourself up to the point of exhaustion. It’s not saying you can’t have appropriate boundaries that determine how much you can give, when you can give it, and what you are able to offer. It’s just saying, in a very general way, check in with your people.
My own rule of thumb is: If someone has crossed my mind and we haven’t interacted in some way very recently, I should check in with them to let them know I’m thinking of them.
I also have about a dozen friends who know they can contact me anytime and that I am in pretty constant contact/check in/vent sessions with. Yes, this means I may have expended all of my available energy in a given week with that circle, but that is about the boundaries thing.
I keep seeing posts about how maybe your friends aren’t checking on you because they have their own crisis. Yep. But that’s not ALL of your friends at the same time. Ok, it might actually be all of your closest friends at the same time. But what about the not-so-close friends who you haven’t heard from? Worse, who you may have reached out to and not heard back from? Also, those of us in crisis aren’t the ones not checking in with each other. In my experience, we’re the best about supporting and checking in with each other in a myriad of ways. The problem is, we need those of you who aren’t in crisis to show up more often.
We all have those friends who expect us to show up for them but are never there for us. We all have those friends who we understand are frequently in crisis but who somehow never hear us saying we are also in crisis or simply exhausted and can’t do this right now. We all have those friends who cross our boundaries repeatedly and drain us, but who we know we can’t go to when we are in need. We shouldn’t have any shame about naming them as bad friends. And we should definitely take inventory if we are being that bad friend to someone else.
Part of this reaction against being told to check in with our friends is based in a misunderstanding of what checking in is. I have seen several posts saying “your friends aren’t equipped to provide your professional services,” but, seriously, who the hell is asking them to? How do you read “check in with your friends more often” and think that means “provide your friends with high-quality free psychological services that are completely outside the scope of your knowledge base”? And who is really expecting that out of their friends? (Note: Even if, like me, you do have friends who are professionals, please don’t expect them to provide you free or regular services “as a friend”. They have professional practices you can support, and they need a break from doing that work, not to be the freebie advisor to every friend.)
So what does “checking in” actually look like? Well, it can look a lot of different ways. Here is a non-exhaustive list of some ways it can look, based on things that friends have done for me that have made a difference and actually been helpful. Which method works for you is going to depend on many factors: the nature of your friendship, your physical proximity to said friend, your own abilities, your energy level or other factors at a given moment that may be different at another time, etc. What method works with one friend may be very different from what works with another friend, both because their needs and access are different and because your ability to meet those needs is different. You may also be willing to do things for certain friends that you aren’t willing to do for other friends, for any number of reasons around the quality, reciprocity, or nature of the friendship, and that is ok too.
- A quick text message — whether by phone, FB Messenger, Twitter DM, or otherwise. Checking in can be as simple as a short message that says “I thought of you and just wanted to say hi,” “You crossed my mind, and I know you’ve been struggling so wanted to let you know I’m here if you need to vent,” “Hi, so sorry to hear about ___, want you to know I lit a candle for you today. Sending you good energy,” or “Hey, saw you have an interview later this week and just wanted to wish you well!” Your friend may or may not respond. They may respond with a simple “thank you” or they may respond asking how you are doing or letting you know they need someone to talk to. You get to name your boundary about whether you are available for a conversation, and you should do so. If you were rushing that message off while running into a meeting or for some other reason you aren’t available for an extended convo, say “I’m running into a meeting and can’t talk but wanted to let you know I saw your post and I’m sending you lots of love.” If they say they need to talk to someone, you can let them know when you will be available, offer to meet up for coffee, or say honestly that your schedule this week is a beast but you want them to know you care and hope they have someone they can talk to sooner than you are able to be available (see Offering Resources below because you may need to switch to this tactic quickly). Phone calls tend to take more time, but if your friend is someone who talks on the phone and you wish to make a call that is an option.
- Just listening — Sometimes we need to vent or just talk through what is going on. Sometimes we really just need to name and verbalize how we are feeling or what we are experiencing. Your friend might not be asking for anything but for you to listen. They may not want advice. If you know that you don’t have the energy, special knowledge, or other ability to offer anything else but your ears, that’s ok. Just be honest that you have a little time and you can listen if that is helpful. It’s also ok to have a time boundary — to say up front “I have to get to work soon/pick up the kids/whatever, but I have ten minutes free if you just need me to listen and want to get it off your heart.”
- On advice giving — It’s best to ask directly if your friend wants advice, and then to be clear about why you feel qualified or not qualified to give it and what your limits are. Almost no one wants unsolicited advice, and almost no one wants a friend to act like they can “fix” or “solve” us easily. Don’t give advice without a) knowing your friend wants it, b) knowing the limits of your ability to advise, and c) being prepared and accepting for your friend to say they’ve already tried that, it isn’t appropriate/relevant to their need, or there are reasons they just aren’t going to do what you are suggesting. Don’t argue or act like your friend deserves to suffer because they can’t or don’t want to take your advice. There is almost always more nuance to the situation and their relationship to the options for solving it than they are telling you. Trust them that they know what is useful.
- Offering practical services — If you know your friend has limited access to things they need or they are unable to do tasks and you are both willing and able to do those things, offer it. A friend of mine messaged me and said they were coming over to drop something off but that they needed to go to the grocery store first, and asked if they can pick anything up for me. They are bringing me some ice cream, which makes my day. It seems pretty little, but it’s an excellent check in and a practical way to help me. Other friends have offered to take my dog out for a walk because they know I cannot, or offered to return bottles for me. One friend checks in every couple of months to say she is making a big batch of lentil soup to freeze and can she drop off a bowl for me. A lot of these things are simple drop and run things. Other things like “Hey, I’ve got some free time this week and wanted to see if you need rides or just a companion for appointments” or “Hey, I’m going to go sit by the river and wondered if you’d like to come, and it’s ok if you do or don’t want to talk, bring a book if you prefer” might take more effort so you offer them only when you reasonably can.
- Offering resources — As you can see, I’m trying to help you to see how simple and small a check in can be. None of this involves you doing deep “saving a life like a mental health professional” labor, but there are going to be times when you check in and your friend is at that point that they do need more intense support. Your job as a good friend isn’t to pretend to be a psychologist then. Your job is to tell them you think they may need professional help at this point, and if possible to help them get it. In some cases this might be as simple as asking “when is the last time you meditated?” or “have you checked in with your sponsor/therapist/partner about this lately?” These are ways of reminding your friend of very real resources they already have and can make use of, but in the moment of spiraling mental illness or crisis they may not be able to think of those things. It may also mean you getting them a hotline number or the link to a reiki practitioner you know has openings or an article you know provides advice or encouragement about that particular issue they are dealing with. In other cases, it may mean saying “It sounds like you should be seen in person about that, do you have a way to get yourself to the hospital? Do you need me to call someone you would like to have meet you there or go with you? Do you need me to arrange a Lyft for you?” Sometimes we are self-talking ourselves out of getting the help we know we need out of a fear of “making a big deal,” being a burden, or worrying someone. Other times our ability to even think of the right next step has been compromised and we don’t even know what to do. It’s totally ok for you to remind us that you are not a therapist and cannot take on that role. It’s also ok to tell us that you are uncomfortable, afraid for us, concerned, etc. and that you feel in over your head but want to help us connect with someone who really can help. Notice that all of this is still about giving your friend the right to accept or reject help — not imposing help on them.
We could all stand to improve our ability to be good friends, rather than getting upset and defensive when people say “check in with your friends”. If you know that you check in with your friends, that statement doesn’t apply to you. So if hearing that you should check in upsets you, it might be your conscience telling you that you could be better about it. Maybe you don’t feel close enough or equipped to meet every possible need — nor should you have to, but I promise you, a simple “Hey, I was thinking of you and wanted you to know you matter to me” has saved lives. When more of us are doing it more often, more people are feeling supported, and ultimately more likely to get the actual help we need. Be the village for someone.
At the same time, no one is asking you to personally and individually save lives — you can do all the “right” things and still lose a friend because they still didn’t feel they could go on. It’s never your fault someone has made that choice (unless you actively ostracized them, ignored their asks for help, harassed them, or told them you didn’t care), and their death really is not about you.
You can do this AND advocate for better access to mental health and crisis support services, more funding for the services, more training in cultural competency for professionals providing those services, etc. It does not have to be one or the other. But we tend to find it easier to sign petitions or post about access disparities than the more personal labor of checking in with friends who are or may be struggling. Relationships matter too, and relationships aren’t solved by funding.