Written by Katie Wang.
Mental health challenges are more common than we realize, yet many suffer in silence due to fears of shame and stigma. As such, it is quite likely that you will encounter a friend who is struggling with emotional issues but is afraid to ask for help. This can be a tough situation: While you are obviously concerned about your friend, you might not know how to express your concerns or how to respond to the friend’s distress. Furthermore, symptoms of mental health problems, such as depression, often include social withdrawal, so your friend might not appear receptive to your concerns even when you do manage to express them. Nevertheless, reaching out to a friend in distress can potentially make a huge difference, by helping that person see that someone still cares and that recovery is possible. Here are a few suggestions for how to support a friend where emotionally difficult times:
- Don’t be afraid to reach out. If you notice that a friend seems unusually sad, anxious, or “out of it,” reach out. Tell them you have noticed the unusual behaviors, let them know you are concerned, and ask them how things are going. Be sure to pick a private place for this conversation and that both of you have plenty of time to talk. Even if your friend does not open up to you right away, this initial conversation might help them feel more comfortable about sharing their feelings with you in the future.
- Don’t trivialize your friend’s problems. One hallmark characteristic of depression and anxiety is unusually intense emotional reactions to everyday stressors. Things that make us a little sad or worried might be completely overwhelming for individuals experiencing these conditions. As a result, do not judge your friend for feeling terrible, even if they can’t seem to provide a “good” reason for why they are feeling the way they do. Empty reassurances like “I’m sure you will feel better after getting some sleep” can, despite your best intentions, make your friend feel more alone. Chances are they have been trying to convince themselves that what they are experiencing is not a big deal for a long time without success.
- Ask important questions and be prepared with resources. Ask your friend if they have talked to anyone else about their problems and whether they would consider talking to a counselor. Be prepared with potential resources, such as the phone number of your campus counseling center or crisis hotlines in your area. In the event that your friend seems so distressed that you become concerned about their safety, don’t be afraid to ask them whether they have any thoughts about hurting themselves. In contrary to popular beliefs, most people would answer this question honestly, and getting them professional help can be potentially life-saving.
- Take care of yourself. Last but not least, recognize that supporting a friend who is struggling can be an extremely stressful experience. Make sure that you have your own support network and that you are taking care of your own emotional needs. Don’t feel guilty if you can’t seem to solve all of your friend’s problems, and get others involved if you feel that your friend needs support beyond what you can provide. Remember that even if you don’t always know what the right thing to say, the fact that you are showing care and concern can go a long way in helping your friend.
For more info, see: http://activeminds.org/issues-a-resources/get-help/how-to-help-a-friend