How to Recognize When People are Suffering


Is it possible to need help from others and not even know it? I used to think suffering was obvious but now I’m not so sure.

We all have some sort of pain, but we brush it off or ignore it. Maybe we think it doesn’t seem like much compared to the suffering we hear about on the news every day. Or perhaps we think it’s a temporary setback and won’t last. Some of us may assume that people are consumed with their own problems and don’t have time to be bothered with ours, so we stay silent and don’t ask for help when we could use it.

In extreme situations suffering is apparent and we know what it looks like, but where’s the line? When does a “tricky” situation become “dire”? How many bad months does it take before a business closes? What are the warning signs we need to recognize in order to put counteractive measures in place?

For many of us, our busy schedules filled with appointments and obligations keep us occupied to the brink of breakdown. We don’t have time for self-reflection or to take note of triggers and internal alarm bells telling us we’re not OK. And if we don’t have time to notice our own internal struggles how will we ever see when others are taking a wrong turn?

How do we recognize when people are suffering around us? Here are a few suggestions.

First, be in regular contact. If we stay in touch with friends and family we’re positioned to notice and be helpful when something changes. Not only is reaching out to one another a good practice, Scripture tells us to.

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. (John 13:34–35)

Second, pay attention. Body language and changes in regular activities or behaviour can be a sign that something is happening. In my group of friends, often the only indicator that something is wrong is weight change or the failure to return phone calls. It’s easy to overlook small fluctuations, especially since everyone is so busy, so paying attention is an important discipline.

Third, ask questions. “How are things?” is a good start but sometimes we need to be more direct. When we take the time to ask questions, and care about the answers, people often respond by opening up. Use discernment to find the balance between probing for information and giving space. And remember to be a trustworthy confidant.

Fourth, be available. We can do everything right on our end but that doesn’t mean the other person is ready to ask for help. That’s OK. By being available, it indicates that we care and will be there when the other party reaches out. 

While we may not fully understand what others are going through, we can still do our best to relieve their suffering. Galatians 6:2 says, “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.” Sometimes all it takes is a listening ear, but if there are deeper problems requiring professional help, we must be sensitive to that as well. It takes discernment to know what the right reaction is, so remember to pray and use sound judgment.

Shifting our focus from inwards to outwards is not something that happens overnight. And sometimes we will be unable to help. But by being in regular contact, paying attention, asking questions, and being available, we create a safe place in our relationships for our network to reach out when they need it.