Helping A Friend
What should I do if I’m worried a friend is struggling with a mental health issue? We’re breaking it down into 3 easy steps, because reaching out can save a life.
Step 1. Check in.
You’ve noticed changes – your friend’s behavior, things they’re saying or posting online. You know you need to talk to him/her, but you’re afraid to say the wrong thing. We’ve sooo been there. Here are a few tips on how to break the ice:
Keep it low-key, in a private place where you can talk freely, and one-on-one (instead of a group discussion). No need for them to feel like it’s a bigger deal than it is – or worse, that they’re being ambushed. Make sure you won’t feel rushed. Pick a time when you have the flexibility to spend time together. Texts are OK to open the conversation, but in-person or by phone can help avoid misunderstandings. If your friend doesn’t want help and you have reason to worry about their safety, by all means, do tell a trusted adult right away to keep your friend safe. Your friend may be upset in the short term, but they’ll thank you later.
Step 2. Just listen.
Be curious. Don’t judge. Just. Listen.
Your friend isn’t looking for you to understand completely, or to sympathize by saying you’ve felt the same way. It can feel counter-intuitive in the moment, but attempting to assure your friend by saying you understand it completely, or reduce her/his experience to a “rough patch,” might cause them to feel uncomfortable sharing fully. The most important thing you can do is to assure your friend that you care about them and want to help, and give them the time and space to talk and feel totally listened to without judgement, jumping to conclusions, or trying to “fix” it.
Step 3: Take action
Help your friend go get help. And then check in again in the days, weeks and months that follow.
One of the most powerful things we can do as a friend is to offer to be there for them no matter what. It’s also important to ask about practical ways you can support them. Let them guide you as to how they’d like to be supported, but also look for clues that they may need encouragement to seek mental health support from a professional (and also look for self harm including drugs/alcohol, suicidal feelings, abuse and bullying). You can help your friend feel more in control by reminding them that their feeling is temporary – it can change with the right kind of support. Have some help resources at your fingertips before your conversation, and offer to go with them to a counseling center, stand by while they call/text a hotline, or open up to a parent or other trusted adult. Talk about what information needs to be shared with that person, and how to tell them (in person, through you/someone else, in writing/email/text).
Things you can say
At a loss for the right words to say? A few ideas:
- “I’ve noticed you haven’t been yourself lately.”
- “I just wanted to let you know you can talk to me about anything, in case you’re struggling with something.”
- “How are you feeling? What’s going on?”
- “Have you had thoughts of hurting yourself?”
- “Are you OK? How can I help?”
- “Have you talked with anyone else about this?”
- “I’m concerned because I care about you.”
- “Can I help you find someone to talk to who can make you feel better?”
- “Can I walk with you to the counseling center?“
- “Can I be with you while you text/call this hotline?”
Don’t let this conversation be the last one.
Revisit the subject every now and then. Even an occasional text letting your friend know you’re thinking about them can be enough to remind them you care, and that they aren’t alone.
And keep in mind that sometimes, even when you do everything right, trying to help will elicit an angry response from a friend. Be prepared for the possibility that they’re in denial, or that their illness is preventing them from seeing or accepting the need for help.
If this happens, rely on your own support network—mutual friends, parents and other trusted adult—to remind you that you’re doing the right thing.