Basic V-A-R

Active Minds’ everyday guide for everyday challenges

What is Basic V-A-R?

Basic V-A-R is Active Minds’ everyday guide for everyday challenges. It’s about showing up for one another in our everyday struggles.

The letters V-A-R correspond to three steps: Validate-Appreciate-Refer. The steps are easy-to-understand, easy-to-do, and easy-to-remember. They provide a guide to listening and responding in a helpful way.

V-A-R conversations can take many forms — phone, in-person, text message, Facetime. The medium doesn’t matter as much as the message that you care.

Why V-A-R is important

A conversation can be life changing. For many people, feeling supported is just what they need.

It can be challenging, though, to know exactly what to say when someone tells you they are stressed, having a difficult day, or are in pain or have a mental health need.

Active Minds suggests an approach that includes 3 V-A-R Steps so you’ll know what to say and do in those moments. A conversation that includes the elements of Validate-Appreciate-Refer is one that allows you to actively listen to someone you care about and help them cope or bounce back. A conversation with you could make all the difference and prevent a crisis from developing later.

With V-A-R, Active Minds lets everyone know that someone doesn’t need to be in a crisis to seek help; you don’t have to be an expert to provide help; and help can come in many different forms. Being there for someone in a moment of need is what it’s all about.

It can be really challenging to know what to say or how to respond to someone when they confide in you. Having a roadmap like V-A-R makes it easier to focus on helping the other person rather than worrying about saying the ‘right’ thing.

Megan Larson

V-A-R in brief

Below is a brief overview of V-A-R. Use this as a guide to listen in a way that let’s the person know they’re being heard and they’re not alone. (You don’t have to do the steps in order).

To learn more, see the 3 V-A-R Steps page. You can also keep these steps handy by downloading the V-A-R Wallet Card.

1. Validate their feelings

Let them know what they’re feeling is okay and that you believe them. Validation sounds like…

  • “That makes sense.”
  • “That sounds difficult.”
  • “I’m sorry you are struggling right now.”

2. Appreciate their courage

Speaking up can be a challenging step — let them know it’s a good one. Also show you’re there to support them. Affirmation sounds like…

  • “Thank you for sharing.”
  • “You are not alone.”
  • “I’m here for you.”

3. Refer them to skills and support

Let them know help is available and refer them to appropriate resources. Refer sounds like…

  • “Sometimes taking time for self-care and listening to a comedy podcast helps me, can we do that together?”
  • “I’ve been using this meditation app. It’s really helped me slow down my thoughts.”
  • “I think it might be helpful to talk to someone. I can stay with you while we call/text a hotline.”

Just three simple steps. But it means so much.

An example of V-A-R in action

In this real-life example, Megan recognized that there might be more to her roommate’s story:

My roommate was stressed about midterms and was having trouble sleeping and concentrating. He came home one day frustrated by the response he had received after confiding in his friends. 

They had told him things like: ‘You’re in college, we’re all stressed,’ ‘That’s just midterms,’ and ‘You’ll get over it.’

He didn’t feel like his friends were really listening or that they understood the extent of his anxiety. It wasn’t just about exams.

Megan’s subsequent response to her roommate shows V-A-R in action.

She first validated his feelings: “That sounds really difficult. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed and stressed, especially during exams.”

She then appreciated his courage: “I’m glad you shared this with me — I know it isn’t always easy.”

Finally, she referred him to appropriate skills and support: “It might be helpful to talk to someone about how you’re feeling and what’s keeping your mind racing.” and “Have you tried engaging in some self-care activities? I know exercise usually helps you relax. Have you been to the gym lately?”

When to use V-A-R

Here are some things you might hear a friend, family member, or colleague say that suggests they may need support. Consider these to be an opening to having a fuller conversation. Respond with the V-A-R steps in mind — Validate-Appreciate-Refer.

  • “I’m just having a hard time lately.”
  • “It’s hard to get going with my day sometimes.”
  • “I’m really stressed out.”
  • “It’s just so hard to cope with everything.”
  • “I’ve been feeling really anxious lately.”
  • “I’m so exhausted.”
  • “I have too much going on.”
  • “I’m feeling really overwhelmed.”

If you hear a friend mention the word suicide or suggest they are considering hurting themselves (for example, suggesting they want to end it all), it’s critical to help them seek professional help. See our Signs and Symptoms page for more information.

V-A-R is for non-crisis situations

Basic V-A-R is a guide to how to respond to everyday troubles in a helpful way. For many situations, you don’t have to be an expert to help – you just have to be there. Have a conversation to let someone know, I’m here for you, and then refer them to additional sources of support.

For crisis situations, see the Crisis Information: Get Help Now page.

How V-A-R came to be

Students who are part of an Active Minds chapter often get approached by people with a story to tell. During a campus outreach event, for example, a passerby might relate their own struggles or that of a friend or family member who has depression, anxiety, or other mental health issue. Mental health concerns are so common!

Chapter members, like most of us, aren’t therapists, though. So how should you respond when you’re not quite sure how?

Juliette Virzi and Megan Larson, two outstanding leaders from the Active Minds chapter at UCLA, tapped into their own experiences as Active Minds members and mental health advocates to address this question.

They realized that mental health trainings tend to focus on crisis intervention and suicide prevention. What their chapter members needed was a guide to how to respond to every day troubles in a helpful way.

Megan’s and Juliette’s insight led to the creation of V-A-R, an easy-to-remember guide for themselves and their fellow students on how to listen and then refer a person to additional help. The two refined the concept to see what works best. The V-A-R approach was then presented at the Active Minds National Conference in 2017 for feedback from other students nationwide.

The consensus was that Validate-Appreciate-Refer is a much needed guide for anyone who wants to know how to respond to someone who’s having a hard time in a way that let’s them know they’re being heard and they’re not alone.

Juliette and Megan have since graduated and are pursuing careers in the mental health field. Our sincere thanks to them both for their amazing work and for sharing V-A-R with Active Minds and the world.

If you are worried that someone may be considering suicide, find support immediately by texting “BRAVE” to 741-741. Stay with them until they are safe.