When you’re worried about someone…

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It might be a friend, a work colleague, a family member, a life-partner, or almost anybody you know fairly well – so what do you do when you’re worried about someone’s wellbeing? This might be someone who is stressed, anxious, depressed or even suicidal. It could be a health issue like drug-abuse, smoking, obesity, untreated or poorly treated chronic illness (e.g. diabetes, high blood pressure, HIV, etc.), financial distress, etc. It might be a relationship problem or a workplace issue. Modern life is full of challenges and we all struggle sometimes.

To intervene, or not to intervene?

The first question is whether to simply leave-well-alone, or to do something. It’s tricky and no two situations are alike so you have to judge each on its own. Some simple questions often help…

  • If the roles were reversed, what would you want?
  • If things continue unchanged what do you think will happen?
  • If you do nothing and something bad happens, how will you feel?
  • How private or sensitive is this?

Often, the answers to these questions will help you decide whether or not to intervene in some way. Only you can decide.

What to do?

OK, so let’s say you’ve decided to approach the person you’re worried about. What to say? How? What is the best way to really help? Well, here are a few guidelines that may help you:

  • Make a private one-on-one approach. There are places where a “group” intervention can work, but in general it’s best to keep these things private.
  • Listen.
  • Explain why you are worried. Use “I” and simply express your concerns. It is not about you but it is about your concerns so that’s usually the place to start.
  • Listen.
  • Do not make a diagnosis. Do not go beyond your expertise and your role. You are not the doctor, psychologist, finance expert, or any such. You are a concerned friend (or family etc.) and you need to always remember the difference.
  • Listen.
  • Use available resources. You are not a health expert or a legal wizard or a finance expert so always remember that there are experts you can suggest. It is often a good idea to write down the contact details of experts you think might be able to help. Simply giving a troubled person a slip of paper with an important phone number on it (the company EAP is often valuable here), can be a life-changing intervention sometimes.
  • Listen.
  • Respect that the choices are not yours. If your friend refuses to take any action there is not much you can do. Remind him or her that you are concerned and that you are available at any time, but make it clear that you respect his or her choices. (If you really think a life or lives are in danger you can consider approaching others or even authorities like the Police, but these are rare situations.)
  • Listen.
  • Propose a catch-up. You have raised something important and probably sensitive. A initial brief chat with a follow-up in a few days often helps both of you to get comfy with the conversation.
  • Listen.
  • Remember that you cannot fix everything. You’re concerned. You have expressed your concerns and tried to help. You’ve done well. Sometimes you simply have to accept that you cannot do more.
  • Never break trust (unless lives are at risk). Never.

There is a lot that we can do to help those around us. If you’re worried about someone you may well be able to help. Remember to respect boundaries, be realistic and of course, to listen. You may change, or even save, a life.

About the Author:

Colin was a medical practitioner (GP) from 1988 to 2000. Since then he has worked in the wellness field, designing, developing and delivering various products and services. Out of clinical practice for many years now he no longer practices medicine formally but retains a keen interest in helping people become more-well versions of themselves. He acts as a wellness coach and not as a medical practitioner today. Colin's approach and philosophy is based on empowerment: the notion that people only need a little help to make choices they usually already want to anyway - it's about respect and support rather than instruction or correction. Colin lives at the Vaal Dam with his wife Cathy. He spends time walking mountains, cycling, motorbike riding, kayaking, sailing and always looking for better & better balance.


  1. Claiment Ravele August 31, 2018 at 5:21 am - Reply

    i should intervene and Find a time and place where we can both feel safe to talk. Tell my friends or relatives that i genuinely care about them. Acknowledge what i have observed recently, such as, “You seem so unhappy lately.” and allow time for them to open up. and i must not dismiss what they say or argue with how they feel.

  2. Jeanette Nel August 31, 2018 at 5:36 am - Reply

    I was 54 years old, I was obese, and I suffered from hyperlipidaemia and hypertension. I was on chronic medication. I had painful joints and was generally uncomfortable. I was also very inactive (mainly because it was way to much effort and I got tired quickly). In November 2017 I decided that I want to gain back my health, as I would like to still be around long to see my grandchildren grow up. I decided that I am not going to go on a diet, but to rather change my life style. I did and only ate healthy non processed fresh foods, no sugar, and less carbs. I have lost 22 kilos, and started karate classes again. (I haven’t done karate for ten years). I am a 2nd Kyu brown belt and I aim to grade to 1st Kyu brown belt in about three months. I am now 54 years young, and haven’t felt this good and fit in a very long time. Living an active healthy life style can be achieved very easily, and no matter how overweight or inactive you are, it can improve. I am continuing the way of life and feel younger and healthier by the day. It is not that hard, you just have to do it.

  3. Ziyanda Mxhiki August 31, 2018 at 7:34 am - Reply

    In my personal opinion generally people like to be asked how they are doing. Remembering things about people helps in reaching out to them. If you remember that uncle of theirs who was ill you have a way to start a conversation and find out how they are doing. The EAP as well as Care Ways are great starting point to refer people to. In essence we are each other’s keeper especially in the work environment where we spend most of our time. So stand up, put your pride aside and reach out to that person. If they don’t feel like talking now keep an open door policy it is the Sanlam way after all.

  4. Virgil Prinsloo September 3, 2018 at 8:21 am - Reply

    Great article! and came at the right time. I have a friend who’s currently dealing with a situation relating to his teenage boys and this article will help me engage better with him. I am a “rescuer” and feel a natural compulsion to fix peoples problems. This article reminds one that it is not necessarily our job to fix other peoples challenges, especially where we’re not qualified to do so and sometimes listening is all that is really required. People will often find the help they need, they just need someone to care enough to listen, listen and listen some more and reassure them that they’re not the only ones in this situation and there is help out there.

  5. Shakeel Paulse September 3, 2018 at 12:25 pm - Reply

    Whether to intervene or not, really depends on how well you know the person. Everyone in this world needs at least one person they can talk to in confidence. Keep in mind that each situation can differ from person to person. For you to understand the seriousness of a situation, you must be emotional intelligent in other words, you cannot tell a person who suffers from depression to “get over it”. Ask yourself the question, what would I want from someone if I suffered from depression or any other physical or psychological illness. Listening to someone is probably the one most important thing to do. We’ve all been there where you just want someone to listen. The more you listen, the more open the person will become. Don’t give too much advice, keep it short and show the person you care and that you are there to help (but mostly listen). If it is a Sanlam colleague, mention EAP, but continue listening to the person. From personal experience I can safely say that when you’re in a tight spot and you talk to someone and they listen with intense, you become comfortable so quickly in that persons presence that you open up and without realising that this person is actually helping by just listening and be there for support. It is not easy when you’re going through a tough time and everybody is avoiding you or too afraid to talk to you, makes you think that you really did something wrong.

  6. Michele Bamber September 5, 2018 at 5:19 am - Reply

    In my experience, if I see someone struggling, I will call that person into my office and tell him or her what I have observed. Letting them know that I see their struggle, I see that their behaviour has changed and that I am worried about them shows them that they are “seen” and cared about. I will ask questions that will allow them to open up knowing that they are in a safe, private and confidential environment. Once I have asked the question, listening is key. Often people go into their own experiences based on what the person is telling you and that is not what they want to hear. Listening provides the opportunity for someone to talk through their feelings and get a better understanding of what they are actually going through. Sometimes we are so engrossed in the problem that we cannot see the wood for the trees and so just speaking it out can put it into perspective. I try to always provide the Careways reference and let the person decide on their own if they want to use them. Ensuring that there is no blame or judgement makes for a successful discussion. I think that people often don’t get involved because they don’t know what to say but if you just sit and be in the moment for that person, it can be the catalyst to the change that makes them get help or do something differently.

  7. Tshepiso September 5, 2018 at 11:54 am - Reply

    Hi. We are all different and react differently to situations. Some people are very private like myself. I going through very personal difficult time and sometimes opening up worsens the situation. It is preferable to just listen when someone opens up to you, don’t judge and don’t lead the person who is facing the challenge to tell you, rather wait until he / she talks to you.
    Even if the person does not give all the details about what’s going on, giving that person a hug helps and letting them know that you are there for them helps. It simple things that count when one is facing challenges.
    I believe in giving one his / her space to go through their emotions, acknowledging how they feel and how they react to the situation and I just let one know that I am there should he / she need anything, because asking about the problem might put salt into a fresh wound.
    Lots of hugs helps.
    Thank you

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