3 V-A-R Steps

Validate, Appreciate, Refer®

Having a conversation that includes three elements — Validate, Appreciate, Refer® — is a way to listen to someone you care about and help them cope. It’s an approach that could make all the difference to that person and help prevent a crisis.

Below is a guide to the 3 V-A-R steps. For additional information, see the Basic V-A-R® page. You can also download a V-A-R® Wallet Card to keep these steps handy.


1. Validate their feelings

Let them know what they’re feeling is okay and that you believe them.

When you reach out to someone, validate their feelings and acknowledge that they’re real. Even though feelings might not seem rational or easy to explain, they are always valid. People can’t control their feelings like they might be able to their thoughts or behaviors.

Let them know what they’re feeling makes sense and you hear them and are listening. Do so by paraphrasing/echoing/mirroring their sentiments. Repeat back to them their own words regarding how they’re feeling or what they’re going through. Rephrasing is also a way to make sure you’re understanding correctly (“I hear that you’re feeling X, is that right?”).

Validation sounds like…

  • “That makes sense.”
  • “That sounds difficult.”
  • “I’m sorry you are struggling right now.”
  • “I believe you.”
  • “I hear you.”
  • “It seems like you’re having a particularly hard moment.”
  • “It makes a lot of sense that you are stressed.”
  • “You have a lot on your plate.”
  • “Sounds like you’re having a really tough time right now.”
  • “I’m so sorry to hear you’re struggling right now.”
  • “That must be really difficult to cope with.”


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.

It’s often not easy for a person to admit they’re struggling. Say you’re glad they opened up to you and acknowledge that taking such a step isn’t easy. Let them know they’re doing the right thing by putting words to their feelings.

It can be very helpful to hear your encouragement. Show that you’re there to support them. Use this opportunity to let them know you care and they’re not alone.

Appreciate sounds like…

  • “Thank you for sharing.”
  • “Thank you so much for talking to me. That took a lot of courage.”
  • “It took courage to share with me. I love you and I’m here for you. Thank you for being open with me.”
  • “I’m here for you if you want to talk or need anything.”
  • “You are not alone.”
  • “I will support you through this tough time.”
  • “I struggle sometimes too.”
  • “We all need support sometimes.”


3. Refer them to skills and support

Let them know help is available and refer them to appropriate resources. 

Sometimes what a person needs is a listening ear, a study buddy, encouragement, or time together. Active Minds chapters are a great way for students to come together and know they’re not alone.

Other times, extra skills and resources is what would help. These can include self-care suggestions or coping strategies, especially those suggested by a counselor. You can share what skills and support you’ve drawn from. What helps you feel better when you are stressed or feeling down?

If their need for support is greater, suggest your campus counseling center or other mental health professional. The Referral Resources page lists many options. Offer to stay with them while they call or go with them to their appointment — this reinforces the fact you’re there to support them and they’re not alone.

If your friend is in crisis, see the Crisis Information: Get Help Now page for hotlines and other sources of immediate help.

Remember that this conversation may be ongoing. Following up with the person the next day, or soon, is always a good idea, too.

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.”
  • “Come shoot some hoops with me for a little while and we can talk about it more.”
  • “Can we make plans to go on a run together tomorrow?”
  • “I’m going to be volunteering at the soup kitchen tomorrow, do you want to come with me?”
  • “Let’s spend a weekend baking and watching movies together.”
  • “There are places we can get support.”
  • “I know Active Minds provides education about mental health difficulties and is a supportive environment, would you want to go to a meeting and meet people who understand?”

Note: V-A-R® can be customized for use as a training resource for different populations. Contact us to learn more about these opportunities.

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.