How To Help A Friend With Mental Illness
It can be distressing if you start to see a friend’s behaviour negatively change from their typical self. Maybe they are becoming less talkative and more withdrawn, maybe they frown more often than usual, maybe they seem fidgety or confused, or maybe they start to talk about depressing, negative topics. Your intuition might be nagging you: My friend has changed. Is this what people call ‘mental illness’? What can I do to help? I don’t want to see my friend suffer like this. I must be able to do something. You might feel the impetus to intervene by offering your companionship and support.
If you suspect that your friend is suffering from mental illness, do not jump to any conclusions right off the bat. The first thing to remember is this: if you are not a mental health professional, you are not qualified to diagnose your friend, nor can you offer medical advice for your friend to follow. This includes holistic and alternative therapies as well. As much as you desire to fix your friend’s depression or other perceived mental health condition, you need to realise that this is not within your capacity.
To start off, it might be a good idea to simply observe your friend’s behavior. Note how they have recently changed. It might be helpful to also research different types of mental illnesses so that you feel more confident and educated about mental health in general, but remember: You are not there to diagnose your friend. The following websites can get you started:
This website is a good place to start. It lists the main types of diagnoses that you should be familiar with. Even if a diagnosis seems unrelated to what your friend is specifically experiencing, you should still read about it. Doing so will help to open your mind to the possibility that mental illness manifests in many different ways.
This website features an A-Z index of useful mental health vocabulary, as well as a comprehensive listing of mental health statistics. You may be surprised to learn how common mental illness truly is. Exploring this site further will definitely help you in developing a solid foundation of layman’s knowledge of mental health issues.
The NHS has comprehensive information online regarding mental healthcare in the UK. In addition to providing information about specific terms, it can direct you to places that offer mental health services in your area.
Keep in mind that another big problem that those with mental illness face is stigma. Stigma is a discriminatory attitude against people with mental illness. The unfortunate reality is that many people know very little about mental illness, so negative assumptions are made. Attitudes range from “suicidal people are just looking for attention,” to “mental illness is caused by poor parenting”. Additionally, our news outlets often sensationalise violent crimes by slapping labels such as ‘schizophrenic’ or ‘suicidal’ onto said perpetrators, thereby linking violent tendencies with mental illness. This simplistic view causes many people to fear people with mental illnesses.
So what can I do?
The best thing you can do is simply listen, and keep an open mind whilst doing so. A big part of listening is also offering non-judgmental support. Very often, we feel inclined to give advice or our opinion in reaction to what others say in an effort to help, but advice can actually stifle. One of the most insensitive things you can say is “I know exactly how you’re feeling. Just get over it! Just do this… it’ll work!” You need to realise that you can never fully understand what your friend is going through because you’re not them! Everyone experiences mental illness differently, and you need to respect your friend’s individuality. A good thing you can say is “If you need to talk, I’m here for you.”
You can also learn a lot about your friend by paying attention to non-verbal cues. For example, if you offer to give a hug and your friend moves away, then she probably doesn’t want a hug. Also notice your friend’s posture. Is it slouched or open? Eye contact is important as well. Are they averting your glance? Maybe they are uncomfortable. Rely on your intuition. You can also help your friend feel more comfortable by adjusting your own posture to be more open. Refrain from crossing your arms as this conveys a closed attitude. Regarding your legs, stand with your feet parallel in your friend’s direction, and refrain from crossing your legs if seated.
Another thing to remember is that mental illness does not define a person. Just think: a person with brain cancer is not simply a walking brain with cancer cells in it… they are a person with brain cancer.
In the event that your friend is in an absolute crisis, such as a suicide attempt, do not hesitate to dial 999 or go to your nearest A&E. If you are unsure if a situation is an emergency, always err on the side of caution. Emergency responders usually ask, “Are you a danger to yourself or to others?” You can assess a situation yourself by keeping this question in mind as well. Never feel ashamed that you are “failing to keep your friend’s secret.” If your friend’s life is in danger, you must intervene for their safety.
There is hope and recovery. Mental illness is not a sentence of doom. There are many types of therapies and medications that can help alleviate symptoms. You can also help your friend by being an advocate! For example, if your friend is timid to see a therapist, you might offer to go with them for support. You can also speak on their behalf if they are shy.