How to Help When You Are Helpless

Nov 14, 2019   |   Chloe Ng

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Most of us want to help others. But, what do we do when we don’t quite know how to help?

According to a 2018 IMH study,  youths in Singapore are generally willing to support mental health patients. However, facing a problem as poorly understood and taboo as mental health often leaves us helpless (Pang et al., 2017). This post will be recommending tips on how we can handle some difficult situations we might face when reaching out to a friend in need.

Illustrations by Chloe Ng.

The Happiness Proposition


1. “What if my friend doesn’t want my help?” 

Is it depression or just another bad school day? Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or a particular personality? How can we know when many common illnesses go undiagnosed for years (Andrews, Issakidis, & Carter, 2001).This is an understandable concern because mental health is complex, and symptoms differ with individuals  (Call & Shafer, 2018). Clearly, it is nearly impossible to always tell if a friend needs mental health assistance.

Nevertheless, the need for care and support isn’t confined to an exclusive group of sick individuals. Therefore, it is great to reach out to anyone who you think might need a little boost, regardless of their mental health status. It can be that burnt out course mate during finals or that committee member who feels more distant at meeting this week.

Moreover, there is no harm in asking if one needs help. In fact, reaching out to them shows that you have recognised  that they are struggling, and this helps to validate their experience. Let’s step it up to create a supportive culture of looking out for each to foster a conducive environment for mental wellness.


2. “I don’t think I can share anything about my life with my friend anymore.”

Do you find yourself treading on eggshells or feeling the strong need to protect your friend from hearing anything negative? While it is understandably tricky to deal with a friend with mental health issues, it is highly unlikely that you can keep this up without affecting your relationship with the person. Moreover, your friend would have noticed the difference in your behaviour, and you would probably be left feeling drained.

A better way is to start treating the illness as it is – another part of the human experience. Hence, one should try to maintain normalcy and not refrain from sharing their less cheerful experiences. In fact, your friend might even appreciate feeling capable of helping someone. Nonetheless, we should remember to not over-dramatize.

A suggested approach in sharing would be:

“I’ve been working towards securing an internship at company ABC for a long time. I’m sure there are always other opportunities, but I’m feeling disappointed and incompetent now. “

instead of,

“I can’t take this anymore! I got rejected even after working so hard for that internship!”

While it might be difficult to be level-headed and measured when discussing our setbacks, we believe that small changes in word choices and phrasing can help develop healthier thinking for you too!


3. “Nothing I do or say works?! I tried to help but my friend never listens!”

We hear you. Seeing someone we care about suffer from prolonged mental illness can be frustrating. It is undeniably tempting to give up helping entirely when we feel impotent – everything we’ve tried thus far hasn’t worked. At some point, it can be too overwhelming to handle on top of our hectic class schedules and impending deadlines.

Unfortunately, the common mental illnesses amongst youths do not have an accurate expected recovery time frame .Instead of throwing in the trowel and distancing ourselves, we should consider sourcing for external support if we find ourselves struggling to cope alone. Helping someone struggling with mental health isn’t a quest we have to go at alone but it’s one we shouldn’t lose heart in.

Also, we can educate ourselves with online resources to understand symptoms to better prepare ourselves for what to expect. Understanding the symptoms isn’t about condoning all behaviour, it is the first step for both parties to formulate solutions and tackle the problem together. However, do refer the individual to a mental health professional if they have suicidal tendencies or substance abuse challenges.


The Movement

Being willing to stand up for people with mental health is a great first step!

However, there is still so much we can do to work towards a supportive Singapore where people are comfortable with discussing mental health openly. Today, many Singaporeans still view mental health problems as a taint (Subramaniam et al., 2017). We can change that!

You don’t need expertise in mental health to be of support to someone*, only empathy and open-mindedness. While the tips above can help one get started, we would still recommend learning more about how to help through using online resources like those from CHAT (Community Health Assessment Team), an outreach and mental health check programme.

Let’s work together and be a ripple of change!


Andrews, G., Issakidis, C., & Carter, G. (2001). Shortfall in mental health service utilisation. The British Journal of Psychiatry: The Journal of Mental Science, 179, 417–425.

Call, J. B., & Shafer, K. (2018). Gendered Manifestations of Depression and Help Seeking Among Men. American Journal of Men’s Health, 12(1), 41–51.

Pang, S., Liu, J., Mahesh, M., Chua, B. Y., Shahwan, S., Lee, S. P., … Subramaniam, M. (2017). Stigma among Singaporean youth: A cross-sectional study on adolescent attitudes towards serious mental illness and social tolerance in a multiethnic population. BMJ Open, 7(10), e016432.

Subramaniam, M., Abdin, E., Picco, L., Pang, S., Shafie, S., Vaingankar, J. A., … Chong, S. A. (2017). Stigma towards people with mental disorders and its components—A perspective from multi-ethnic Singapore. Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, 26(4), 371–382.

Three strategies for changing attributions about severe mental illness. – PubMed—NCBI. (n.d.). Retrieved September 23, 2019, from