Ten Ways to Support a Friend’s Mental Health
To mark World Mental Health Day 2016, we take a look at what to say - and what not to say - to a friend or loved one dealing with mental health issues, which affect more women than you know.
Did you know that one in five young Irish adults struggle with mental health, and that women are more affected by mental illness than men? Struggling with mental health when young puts you at increased risk for mental illness, substance abuse and unemployment later in life.
The World Health Organisation defines mental health as: “A state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
Realising potential, coping with stress, working productively, contributing to your community—it all may seem straightforward if you have a positive state of mental health. But mental illness can be totally debilitating for sufferers, and these seemingly normal aspects of life can become daunting, unattainable goals.
So what can you do if you think a friend or loved one may be suffering from mental illness? How can you be supportive but not overbearing, show compassion without being able to fully understand their experience? To help you navigate a difficult and ever-so-important point in your friendship with someone suffering from mental illness, we’ve compiled a list of ten tips to be a supportive friend.
- Don’t be judgemental
This may seem like “Being a Good Friend 101”, but it is absolutely essential. You might know a lot about your friend, but you don’t know how the struggle with mental illness is affecting their mind-set. The best thing you can do is listen with an open mind, don’t judge their actions, and don’t tell them how they should be reacting.
- Educate yourself on available resources
This cannot be overstated! If you want to help your friend and help to reduce the stigma attached to seeking help for mental illness, find out what resources are available in your area! Mentalhealthireland.ie has an amazing list of resources that includes GPs, support groups, counselling and psychotherapy services and help lines.
If you know what resources are available, you can ask your friend if they want to contact professional help—and you’ll be able to give them a number straightaway.
- Emphasise that you are still their friend and that you care
This could be the most important tip in the list. When it comes down to it, the reassurance of knowing that you have a friend who genuinely cares about your wellbeing can be a lifesaver.
- Don’t assume; ask questions
You know what they say about people who assume… Don’t assume that you understand your friend’s experience, and don’t assume you can imagine what it would be like to struggle with mental illness yourself. If you have a question about how your friend is feeling or what they are thinking, ask if they are open to talking about it with you. It is much better to ask even the simplest of questions than to assume you know the answers.
- What to say
There are a lot of tips out there about what to say to someone struggling with mental health. Here are some good ones from Mentalhealth.gov:
“I’ve been worried about you. Can we talk about what you are experiencing? If not, who are you comfortable talking to?”
“I am someone who cares and wants to listen. What do you want me to know about how you are feeling?”
“How can I help you to find help?” or “How can I help you find more information about mental health problems?”
- What not to say
There are also many, many tips about what not to say, like these from Psychologytoday.com:
“Why don’t you just do something to get over it?”
“Stay away from therapy and drugs.”
“You don’t have it that bad.”
Remember that mental illness is an inward state and the experiences of a sufferer cannot be compared to experiences of other individuals—in other words, pointing out other people’s suffering won’t bring helpful perspective to your friend.
- Offer to help with daily tasks
Remember that WHO definition of mental health? Offering to help with daily tasks, like cleaning or shopping, can seriously help your friend if they are finding those chores to be too debilitating to manage on their own.
- Continue inviting them to plans, even if they always say no
Include your friend in your plans and continue to reach out to them even if they keep turning you down. Keep in mind that it doesn’t help to be overbearing and you shouldn’t pressure your friend into going out, but just invite them each time.
It’s also good to bear in mind that drinking alcohol can be a no-no for some types of medication. If that is the case for your friend, try making plans that don’t involve drinking.
- Make an emergency plan
In 2014 alone there were 459 recorded suicides in Ireland. It’s scary to think that your friend’s mental illness could reach that point, but this is all part of busting the stigma around mental health. If you’re close with your friend, ask if they want to make an emergency plan. You could be a literal lifesaver if you are able to call their doctor straightaway in an emergency situation.
- Remember that you are not a professional—be there as a friend!
The bottom line is that you are a friend—not a doctor, not a therapist. While you can encourage your friend to seek professional help, remember that you are not a healthcare professional and the best thing you can be is their friend.
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