How can you help a friend when they go through mental illness? Here are some tips.
We all know how important it can be to talk about mental health – but that doesn’t make it easy. Let your friend know that you’re there to chat to if they’re struggling or need help.
2. …but don’t offer them empty platitudes
It can be really hard to know what to say when someone starts talking about their poor mental health, even if you have the right intentions. Saying things like “don’t worry, you’ll be OK!” or “this will be over soon!” might seem a kind (and logical) thing to say, but it can actually make people feel worse. Will it be OK? Probably. Does it help them when they’re feeling hopeless, depressed or suicidal? No. When you’re feeling really bad, it really doesn’t feel like it’ll ever be over, or you’ll ever be okay – and having someone insist that it will can feel like you’re not being listened to.
Instead, offer them practical support (see below) or ask them questions about how they’re feeling. Let them lead the conversation, rather than the other way round – that way they’ll feel much more listened to, understood, and supported.
3. Do stuff for them
People often assume that mental health struggles are primarily emotional, or characterised entirely by low mood or feelings of distress or despair. And though these can definitely be part and parcel of mental illness, focus on these means one thing is often overlooked – an inability to function on a day-to-day basis.
When mental health problems get really bad, basic tasks like showering, opening mail or cleaning your house can become completely impossible – and may also lead to a cycle of low mood, low self esteem and hopelessness.
So one of the most practical things you can do to help a friend with mental health problems? Do stuff for them! Offer to wash up for them, or bring them dinner; open their mail, make phone calls for them, order them a takeaway, help them do their laundry. To you, they may seem like ridiculously simple everyday tasks – but when you’re depressed they can feel insurmountable. This is a way of showing your friend that they’re not.
If you don’t live near your friend, or they need space, there are other practical things you can do. One example is a care package – a little box of goodies you can send them through the post. Pack it with comforting or distracting things – new PJs, crosswords, some teabags or nice coffee, bath bombs or shower gels. Obviously this isn’t going to make them less depressed or “less mentally ill”, and is obviously never going to replace proper, structured, institutional help provided by medical professionals. But it can make your friend feel temporarily distracted or comforted, and lets them know you’re looking out for them.
4. Offer practical support
Seeking help can be really hard – and even once you ask for it, it isn’t always available. But helping your friend research the support that’s out there – either via the NHS, charities, community networks or privately – or helping them navigate the often fairly exhausting bureaucracy of making and attending appointments, can really help. It’s really tiring! This can ease the burden a bit or make the process a little bit less scary.
Give them a list of resources if you can, or get them in touch with a charity who might be able to. Campaigns like CALM have lots of advice and help available – let your friend know it’s out there!
5. Seriously – actually listen to them
It’s all very well offering a shoulder to cry on, but what’s more important is letting your friend know that they’re actually in control of how they want to access treatment or accept help. Yes, it can be frustrating or upsetting if someone keeps making decisions you feel are “wrong” – but they’re the expert on their own mental health problems, and you need to respect that. You can never force someone to go to the doctor, take medication, leave the house or literally anything else – and that’s OK.
There’s also no ‘right’ way to talk about mental health – or even a need to talk about it at all. Sometimes talking about mental health can make people feel worse – and that’s fine too. Offer them practical support, or distract them by talking about other things. Let them know you’re willing to talk about mental health, but also that they have absolutely no obligation to tell you about their problems. Respecting that can be just as important as saying the “right” thing at the “right” time – let them take the lead.