Sunday 21 June 2020

A Friend in Need: How to Support Someone with a Mental Health Problem

Caroline offers five top tips for supporting someone experiencing mental ill health.

- Caroline

When we feel concerned about a friend’s mental health, it can be tricky to know exactly how to help, and what to do for the best. As someone who has lived through this dilemma from both sides, I hope the following tips provide some useful guidance for both navigating and nurturing the friendship.  

1. Listen

This may seem painfully obvious, but when we hear that a friend is struggling, it can be all too tempting to adopt the role of ‘rescuer’, working at top speed to try and ‘fix’ the problem. However well-intentioned this reaction may be, try your best to fight that natural instinct to offer advice or tell your friend that you know exactly what they’re going through. The truth is that, although you may feel you have been through your fair share of emotional rough patches, nobody’s experiences are identical, and this is their time to speak and be heard. Let them set the pace of the conversation, and use validating statements (e.g. ‘That must be incredibly tough’; ‘Things sound really difficult at the moment’).  

2. Do your Homework

At times, the challenge of supporting a friend experiencing mental ill health can feel daunting, confusing, and perhaps frustrating. If this is the case, it can help to do your research. As the saying goes, knowledge is power; showing a proactive concern for what your friend is going through will help you to react with understanding, rather than judgement or confusion. Information on a wide range of mental health conditions is readily available online, and it will boost your confidence with tricky conversations. 

3. Focus on the Little Things

Living with mental ill health can be tough. Sometimes the overwhelming challenges of living with this kind of difficulty can make keeping up with the hectic pace of everyday life virtually impossible. If you have a few hours to spare, ask if you can be of practical help. Do they need a lift to therapy? Do they need any help organising paperwork? Doing the dishes? Making dinner? It’s always better to ask whether someone would appreciate this kind of assistance, rather than charging in head-first, leaving them feeling useless. That being said, when everything seems to be spiralling out of control, being able to cross a couple of household chores off your to-do list can work wonders for getting you back on your feet.   

4. Don’t Abandon the Friendship

You’re (probably) not a therapist, and that’s okay. The fact that your friend may be struggling, does not, and should not, have to completely alter the nature of your friendship. With this in mind, do your best to switch up your interactions: while regularly checking in with your friend will be hugely appreciated, conversations don’t always have to be about mental health. Tell them what you’ve been up to. Send them a link to something that might make them smile. Continue inviting them to things, regardless of whether they will be able to attend. Do what you can to show that you, and the friendship, are not going anywhere.

5.  Look After Yourself 

As hackneyed as the term may be, the importance of ‘self-care’ must not be underestimated when it comes to preserving your own psychological wellbeing. Burnout is a very real thing, and it’s crucial to make the distinction between being ‘there’ for a friend and being ‘on call’ twenty-four hours a day. Setting clear boundaries regarding when you can and cannot make yourself available (except in case of emergency), will give you the chance to seek the emotional support you may need, while allowing your friend opportunities to cope independently. This will help the two of you to forge a relationship that is both healthy and sustainable.   

Whilst I am by no means a mental health professional, I truly hope you find these tips somewhat useful; they’ve certainly helped me out in the past. 

You can find more information on supporting a friend on the Student Minds website.

I'm Caroline, a final-year student with a passion for starting conversations about mental health! I'm choosing to share my experiences on the blog with the hope of challenging the ongoing stigma surrounding those impacted by mental ill-health. 

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