It is difficult when you know a friend or loved one is suffering with their mental health. You often feel useless or helpless, not knowing how you can best support them.
Sometimes, people are open about their struggles, and some are more reserved. You may know for sure they are struggling, or just have an inclining that something is wrong.
It has been reported that approximately 13% of the world’s population suffers from a mental health problem, with suicide among those aged 15-29 years olds being the leading cause of death and depression a leading cause of disability. Mental health problems for a long time have had a negative stigma attached to them, and people still continue to struggle in silence as they associate mental illness with shame, or struggle to have access to help or treatment. Thankfully, there is an increasing acknowledgment of the seriousness of mental health problems, and when you learn about mental health problems, how you can get help, and how you can support others, then you can make more of a positive impact.
In order to help and support a friend or loved one suffering with their mental health, it is first important to educate yourself. Here is some information and ways you can get started.
What is a mental health problem?
Everyone has mental health. Your mental health is what enables you to function properly in daily life, such as communicating with people, maintaining healthy relationships, your emotional wellbeing, self-esteem, resilience to change, and carrying out activities such as work. Mental illness can affect anyone, of any age, gender, race/ethnicity, income, spirituality/religion, or background.
Mental health illnesses involve a combination of changes, problems, and/or distress related to a person’s emotional, or behavioral wellbeing which in turn can impact their quality of life, social life, and work.
Some examples of a mental health problem are:
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Addiction to drugs or alcohol
- Borderline personality disorder
- Eating disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Suicidal feelings
These are just some examples, there are many more that people can suffer with, or a combination.
Spotting the signs
When someone is struggling with their mental health, there may be a few signs that you can look out for, or perhaps begin to notice. Everyone is different, and mental health problems will manifest in everyone differently. There are, however, some common signs and symptoms that you can look out for, which can tell you there is a problem progressing. Some of these are:
- Withdrawing themselves from social situations, work, or regular events/communication with friends and loved ones
- Excessive worrying or fear
- Changes in sleeping habits and patterns (not getting enough sleep, sleeping too much)
- Extreme mood changes (lots of highs and lots of lows)
- Feeling a prolonged feeling of sadness
- Reduced sex drive
- Overusing substances like alcohol or drugs
- Suicidal thoughts
- Unable to carry out daily tasks that seem simple (for example, making the bed, brushing their teeth, making a meal, etc)
- Overly worried about their appearance, perhaps even obsessive
- Ongoing physical pains with no obvious cause (headaches, dizziness, nausea, stomach aches, fatigue)
- Not able to relate to others
- Not able to feel or express own problems
- Changes in work or school performance
Understand the problem
Just because you can’t physically see it, like a broken leg, doesn’t mean mental health illnesses shouldn’t be treated with the same seriousness. If you know what the problem is, or have a good understanding of the symptoms, do some research and educate yourself so you can talk from a place of empathy and understanding.
Talk about mental health
Often, there is a lot of shame that is carried around with mental health problems, and it can be hard to be the first one to speak up about it. If you have a good understanding of mental health, and can openly talk about it, you are letting the other person know they can trust you and talk to you. As hard as it may seem at first, it is important to initiate the conversation with a friend or loved one who you know or think may be suffering with their mental health, because time is valuable. Mental health problems can be extremely serious, even if it doesn’t seem like it from the outside. These conversations will enable you to learn more about their struggles, and provide an opportunity to ask them what kind of support they would like and need. You can then do further research on the specific struggles.
When talking to someone about their mental health, it is important to consider that you:
- Are open and non-judgmental
- Take time to listen to what they have to say
- Talk to them in a safe environment with no distractions
- Ask open-ended questions so they can lead the conversation
- Don’t doubt them or disregard their feelings
If you are a close friend or family member, it is common that they might not want to talk to you. This is nothing against you personally, but as already mentioned, mental health struggles often come with a lot of shame, and opening up to a close friend may be too difficult, to begin with. It is important you don’t take this to heart, and continue to support your friend or loved one in whatever capacity they will allow. Just knowing that you are there and that you care, can be extremely helpful.
Understand the different treatments
The type of treatment a person needs will entirely depend on what they are struggling with, what symptoms they have, how severe they are, how much their mental health is impacting their daily life and quality of life, and how at-risk they are.
It is important that you understand the different types of treatments available, so you can offer help, support, information, and resources as and when they want or need it. There are many ways to seek help, for example, with a counselor or specialist addiction treatment programs. In some cases, a person may need a combination of treatments to help them through their struggles.
Self-help tools and resources can also be a supportive way to help a friend or loved one. They can play an important role in helping a person cope, manage their symptoms, and function in everyday life. Some of these tools can be nutrition, exercise, and other lifestyle changes.
There are also many mental health helplines that are available for someone who needs to speak to a professional urgently. Depending on where you are in the world, a few searches on Google will bring up mental health services in your area that provide free support, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and other mental health charities.
Understanding the different treatments available does not mean forcing it on your friend, or solving everything quickly. It is important to first ask if there is someone they would like you to contact, and what would help them. You should only encourage someone to seek professional help. Your level of understanding will really help this process. Remember that if a person is struggling, the process will take time and it is best they only seek help when they themselves are ready to do so.
Acknowledge their feelings
Above anything else, it is vital that you at least acknowledge how they are feeling. Mental health problems are often lonely, daunting, and very upsetting. The goal is to provide a safe space where they feel they can go when they are struggling, and the best way to do that is to acknowledge how they are feeling, without judgment or dismissing them.
What to do in an emergency
If you think your friend or loved one is at a great risk to themselves because they are in severe distress, feel like they can’t go on, or feel suicidal, you must encourage them to seek urgent help from a professional, or their doctor. Many mental health helplines also help in emergency cases like this. Perhaps have a few on hand just in case they are ever needed.
Look after yourself
In all of this, it is also crucial that you take care of yourself, and consider your own mental wellbeing in this scenario. If the person you are looking to support is a close friend or loved one, then it can take its toll on you mentally. Whether you already suffer from your own mental health problems or not, the feelings of hopelessness, and the physical and mental energy that you use yourself in order to provide support, or worrying, can lead to its own problems, including stress, anxiety, overwhelm, and burnout. Be considerate of your own limits, and seek professional support.
It can be extremely difficult if you know, or suspect, a friend or loved one is struggling with their mental health. Do what you can do, understand what they are going through, empathize, listen without judgment and let them know you care about them. Mental health illnesses can be very isolating, and your support can make the world of difference.