I often run student workshops on a range of issues related to mental health and emotional wellbeing. Regardless of the precise topic, the most common question students ask me is: “What should I do if I’m worried a friend has a mental health issue?”
Perhaps it’s something you’re wondering about, or you’d like to be able to share ideas with your students, friends or your own child. I’ve shared my ideas below, but I’d love to hear yours, too.
The most important thing you can do for your friend is to make time for them and listen to them. They need to feel listened to, so get rid of all distractions. Giving them the space and time to talk is a really important first step — in the beginning, but also right through (and beyond) the recovery journey.
2. Don’t judge.
More than almost anything, young people with mental health and emotional well-being issues such as depression, eating disorders and self-harm tell me that they fear the judgement of others. They worry people will overreact, thinking they’re crazy or assuming they want to kill themselves. Or sometimes, they worry people will be dismissive and think they’re just attention-seeking. A good friend listens without judgement and sees their friend as a friend — not a unhelpful label like “anorexic or “self-harmer.”
3. Ask how you can help.
When someone shares their struggles and concerns with you, the most helpful thing you can ask is how you can help. There’s no need to dissect the ins and outs of why your friend feels this way — that is the work of a therapist. But as their friend, you can talk to them about what practical measures you can put in place to support them through each day. Think about difficulties and barriers which are making life harder for them. For example, if they’re struggling with anxiety, maybe arriving at school when its really busy makes them feel panicky and out of control. To relieve this, maybe you could walk in with them each day to offer moral support. Exactly how you can help will vary from person to person, so the best thing to do is to have a discussion with your friend to bounce some ideas about. You should also try to revisit the topic every now and then.
4. Seek support — for your friend and yourself.
Depending on the nature of your friend’s concerns, it’s likely you’ll need to encourage them to seek further support. Telling a trusted adult at home or school will enable you to access further support – for both of you. Your friend might be reluctant to share their concerns with anyone else, but if you’re worried it’s important that you don’t go it alone. Also, you may end up developing well-being issues yourself if you take on your friend’s concerns without any additional help. You can help your friend to feel reassured and more in control of the situation by discussing:
WHAT information needs to be passed on – you only need to share enough to access support, not everything they’ve told you.
WHO needs to know – think carefully about who you trust to respond appropriately and support you both.
HOW you’re going to tell them – does your friend want to do it themselevs, do they want you to do it for them, should you to it together or should you write a letter or email?
Of course, we should always try to seek our friend’s consent before alerting someone to their issues. However, there are some circumstances in which you should tell a trusted adult right away to keep your friend safe, and to access support as quickly as possible. These circumstances include:
Self-harm including alcohol or drug misuse
Difficulties concerning food including bingeing, starving, vomiting or laxative abuse
Abuse at home (physical, sexual or emotional)
Abuse from a boyfriend or girlfriend (physical, sexual or emotional)
Bullying of any type
5. Stick by them.
Finally, stick by your friend through thick and thin. It can be hard being friends with someone who’s facing these kinds of difficulties; you may find your friend pushes you away, stops coming out with you, starts acting differently or ignores you completely. But rest assured, your support will mean a huge amount to them (even if they don’t show it) and will help them through their recovery. Even just the occasional text message can mean a huge amount to someone who’s struggling to get through each day.
Good luck – your friend is lucky to have you.