Supporting a friend with a mental health problem

5th October 2020, 14:19


Mental health issues are something that many of us will experience at one time or another.

One aspect which many people find difficult is how they should raise the issue with a close friend who they suspect might have a mental health problem.

For many of us, it may not always be easy to step in when a friend is struggling with a mental health issue. We may be wondering what we should say and are afraid to make matters worse. As a friend, it is not your responsibility to be a psychologist. One of the most important things we can do as a friend is to be there for them, just as we’d wish for our friends to be there for us. Mental health problems are often some of the toughest conditions to go through, and it’s helpful to show that we can offer them support.

We know that those who struggle with a mental issue have a better chance of getting well if supported by their social network. Friendships have been shown to be some of the most important relationships when going through life generally but particularly when it comes to mental issues. A reason for this is that friendships often help someone live with or recover from a mental issue and overcome the isolation often associated with it. It is also noteworthy that friends may help us talk through issues we otherwise would be afraid to discuss and they can enable us to get things in perspective. What each individual might prefer is likely to vary, but here are at least some general tips that you should consider when supporting your friend.

1. Accept that you do not know how they are feeling

Your friend’s circumstances are bound to differ from your past experiences. Although you may feel you know many things about your friends' problems and mental issues, you might not know everything. Thus, you should be careful in making too many assumptions about their situation based on your own experience. You should be there for them and listen. It is often good to start out with open and non-judgemental questions.

2. You do not always need to understand

For the layperson, it may be difficult to understand different mental issues and their effects - like how someone may want to hurt themselves as a result of depression, trauma, or negative self-image. Despite any lack of understanding, it is still important to show sympathy to your friend. You could, for example, say that “That sounds terrible, I would not wish that for anyone.” Laying emphasis on that people can feel bad, regardless of the cause or what the clinical terminology might be. 

3. Your friend decides how much to share

If you are the first person they have chosen to open up to about their mental issue, it is bound to have taken trust and courage from them to do so. As it may be a sensitive issue for your friend you should let them steer the choice of discussion, without any pressure. You could tell your friend that you are there for them if they wish to talk about the issue, or that they should feel free to reach out. Often, just being present and spending time with your friend through shared activities creates a trusting atmosphere. In turn, this may increase the chance of them letting you help them.

4. Self-disclosure

...is the idea that relationship formation is built on trust with another person, which is developed by gradually sharing personal information, such as thoughts, feelings, and experiences that they might share. If you tell your friend about something intimate, it creates a sort of imbalance. In turn, your friend is more likely to share something to even out the perceived inequity. Ultimately, the disclosure allows your friend to show their true selves.

Try to keep the language-neutral. Instead of asking “Why are you feeling so low?”, try formulating more open-ended questions like, “could you tell me how you are feeling?” and “how was your day?” By doing this, we are more likely to understand the true feelings our friend has of the issue.

5. Encouragement to seek help

In many cases, there might be a thin line between having a mental issue and a mental illness. For many, it can be difficult to seek professional help as we believe others have it worse and that we do not deserve help. However, if you suspect your friend has a mental issue or illness it is important to encourage him to seek help. In almost all countries in Europe, help and diagnosis can be sought out by contacting a professional psychologist online or through traditional means. As a friend, you could offer to go with them or provide advice on where to get help.

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