How to Help a Friend living with a Mental Health Condition
Being diagnosed with a mental health condition is not easy. It can cause a person to feel sad, angry and/or shame. At this point in a person’s life, the support of friends is very important. A mental health diagnosis can strain friendships because of misunderstandings and misguided reactions, but it does not have to. Here are some helpful tips on how to help a friend.
Learn about their condition: This step helps you to understanding what your friend is going through. Your friend’s behavior may be confusing and out of character, but understanding how the mental health condition impacts behavior, emotions and actions may help to reduce any confusion. Taking the time to learn about what they are going through also shows that you care and can help strengthen your friendship.
Talk to your friend: Let your friend know you are here for him/her and that you want to understand what he/she is going through. Ask what you can do to help and if there is anything you shouldn’t do or say because it is not helpful. Be clear about your friend’s boundaries in discussing his or her illness and be clear about whom, if anyone, it is appropriate to share this information with. Right after a diagnosis, some individuals may not want others to know, so know where your friend stands on sharing this information with others.
Listen: Listen to your friend. Let him/her talk about feelings and perhaps vent a bit and tell you about what he or she is experiencing, both the good and the bad.
Be discrete: Do not share information about your friend unless you have permission to do so. Your friend has trusted you with personal information so be sensitive about disclosure. Make sure your friend is clear with you about what information you may share with others.
Don’t dismiss or belittle: Even if your friend’s feelings and emotions seem irrational or difficult, it is important to listen and provide support. Know that it may be the symptoms causing your friend to feel or act a certain way, but recognize that dismissing what your friend is experiencing is not helpful. Be compassionate and listen to what your friend has to say, even if it seems uncharacteristic.
Talk to the family: If you know your friend’s family, it may be helpful to ask them if there is anything you can do to help or anything you should do differently when interacting with your friend. For example, avoiding drugs and alcohol or making sure your friend is not too stressed out can help. Ask if your friend’s health providers have given them tips on coping with mental illness that may also be beneficial to you. Acknowledge that you feel a little in over your head, but want to learn how you can help.
Know when a problem is out of your control: Just because your friend has a mental health condition does not mean that you have responsibility for his or her life. If a friend is suicidal, manic or severely distressed, contact the friend’s family or other mental health resource to ensure that your friend gets immediate professional help. It may be difficult, but it is important to acknowledge when your ability to help and support your friend has run out. Without professional training, there is only so much you can do, aside from providing support and compassion. If a friend is having suicidal thoughts, take them seriously, and get others involved, share the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK and do not leave your friend alone.
Don’t judge: People living with mental health conditions are still the same people they have always been, they are simply impacted by a health condition that can causes changes in feelings, behaviors and actions. They are not their diagnosis; rather, they merely HAVE a diagnosis. Treat them with respect and offer your support at every turn.
Find someone to talk to: Having a friend who is experiencing challenging symptoms from a mental illness can be distressing. Be sure you have a close friend, relative or a trusted adult to talk to about your own feelings. It’s important to vent and explore your own feelings and reactions to your friend’s challenges.