how to be there
knowing that a friend or loved one is struggling with their mental health can be scary and confusing
You may feel helpless, but you can make a difference by listening, being prepared, and knowing when to act. Knowing the questions to ask, how to connect your friend to help, and the do’s and don’ts of talking to your friend about mental health will go a long way.
Most of all, you should know that walking beside your friend says a lot about your compassion and empathy. You’re incredible, and we’re so glad your friend has you.
it might be hard for someone to accept help
Helping a friend get the help they need is rarely an efficient process. There are a lot of stages that a person has to go through to find the courage and confidence to get help. As hard as it can be to be patient with your friend, they’re probably not going to move as quickly toward help as you’d like them to, and that can take a toll on you, as well.
Here are some things to keep in mind.
- Leave yourself open
If your friend needs to continue processing in order to take the next step to get help, let them know that you’re there to help them reason through that decision and will be there before, during, and after.
- Cultivate support systems for them
Quietly team up with friends and others who are concerned about your friend and solidify those connections. Your friend doesn’t need to know that this is happening—in fact, to them it may seem like you’re ganging up—but the better people can communicate the pieces of information they know and put them all together, the more supported your friend will feel.
- Cultivate your own support system
Helping a friend through the process of help-seeking can be hard on the helper. Find someone you can debrief with and ways that you can make sure to look after yourself. You might also find someone who can help reinforce your boundaries so that you can follow through on your commitments and self-care.
- Explore your resources
Often it’s hard to know what to say or how to help a friend who is still refusing to seek help. If you’re out of ideas and growing impatient, seek out a counselor who can consult with you on ways to move forward. They’re the experts and they’ve guided other friends through these processes in the past.
- Know when to hold ‘em; know when to fold ‘em
You might be asked to keep your friend’s secrets. Sometimes this is okay as it strengthens trust and keeps the lines of communication open. But if they ever tell you anything that is way beyond what you can handle or indicates that they may be a threat to themselves or others, it’s time to talk to an expert. Your friend may be angry with you, but not keeping their secrets could save their life.
The “S” Word
Talking about suicide will not give someone thoughts they did not already have. Rather, it will let your friend know you are there for them and are open for any and all conversation. You then will be a source of support if things become difficult in the future.
know what to expect when you offer help
Everyone’s mental health treatment and recovery journey is different. But here are some things you might encounter while you walk through this mental health journey with your friend.
- Expect to be emotional
You care deeply and a loved one is struggling. They likely haven’t been the person you’re used to. It might be clear that something is wrong or something in your gut might just be making you worried. Either way there will be some emotions to process.
- Expect to grow
Dealing with matters of the mind, brain, heart, emotions, and health are tough but some of the most important stuff of life. Helping friends through challenge, illness, struggle – it’s not easy. It will stretch you and challenge you, but you’ll likely learn a lot along the way – about yourself, about your friend, and important skills for being there for anyone who is struggling.
- Expect to feel frustrated
Your friend is probably frustrated with not feeling like themselves and the process of trying to change that, and so you likely will, too. Try to think ahead about what will help you keep calm and take care of yourself when frustration creeps in. You might find it helpful to find a song or video that helps to reinstate your hope
- Expect to want to walk away
Your friend will want to walk away, and so you likely will, too. Keep a list of the reasons why it’s worth it to stick it out. And remember, you might have to walk away for a while to take care of yourself. Try not to burn your bridges in the process, though. Be honest about how you feel, and state your hope to rejoin the journey with compassion in the future.
- Expect to refer more than once
Treatment and recovery are not linear processes. Your friend may have to use different kinds of resources at different times in their journey. The first time they seek help from one source probably won’t be the last time, so do your best to be prepared with resources they may need when they ask or sit by them while they search for more.
- Expect awkwardness
There are going to be times that you don’t know what to say or how to help. Be honest about it. Remain open. Wait for the awkwardness to resolve.
- Expect irritability
Many mental health disorders come with irritability. It makes sense. If you’re the person who is trying to help your friend root out the disorder, that disorder is going to tell your friend they should push you away. Stand your ground. Keep your cool. Understand that it’s not personal; it’s the illness.
- Expect intense joy
We have talked a lot about what a slog being a support person can be. But anytime your friend makes even a little bit of progress, those times can bring intense joy. Celebrate those victories with them or alone (depending on what they want), but don’t let them go uncelebrated. Those victories are proof of your friend’s ability to recover.
- Expect positive shifts
No, your friendship will probably never be the same. You may need to grieve those changes. However, recovery can be the start of an even stronger, healthier friendship. Leave yourself open to those possibilities!