How to help a friend who’s struggling with mental health
Valuable advice from an expert
Editor / May 08 2023
This article discusses suicide and mental ill health. If you need support there are a number of services that can help including Lifeline (13 11 14), Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) or check out ReachOut.com. In an emergency call 000.
If you’re worried that a friend might be struggling with their mental health, know that you’re not alone.
According to the latest ABS statistics, two in five Australians have experienced a mental disorder at some time in their life*. And although mental health challenges can present in many ways, friends are often the first to notice something is different.
So what can be done to help? And how can you support a friend dealing with mental health issues? It can be awkward and difficult, we know, but open conversations are key to reminding your loved ones that they do not need to struggle in silence or on their own. In partnership with ReachOut, Maybelline’s global initiative Brave Together is aiming to destigmatise the conversations around anxiety and depression by encouraging brave conversations with friends and family. As Maybelline’s Brave Together ambassador Brooke Blurton says, “every time someone normalises speaking about mental health, anxiety or being vulnerable, it's like giving someone a big hug and saying ‘you're not alone’.”
Not quite sure how to open up the dialogue in a sensitive manner? To help you provide the best assistance you can, we sought some insights from an expert. Linda Williams is the Clinical Lead at ReachOut, an online mental health service for young people in Australia. Below, she shares her best advice on how to help a friend who’s struggling with mental health.
And if you need further assistance, there are a range of support services out there including the ones listed above.
How to tell if a friend is struggling with mental health
The signs that someone may be struggling with their mental health vary from person to person. “For example, they may actually tell you they are feeling down, they might not be getting involved in the activities they used to, or they might pay less attention to their appearance than they did before,” says Williams.
But no matter what might have changed, Williams says the fact that you’ve noticed a change can be the biggest indicator that something might be wrong.
3 initial steps you can take
If you have noticed a change in a friend and think they are struggling with their mental health, there are three steps you can take to offer your support. “Remember, you don’t have to be a mental health professional to be able to help,” says Williams.
Self-assess: “Before providing support, make sure you’re in the right headspace to have that conversation,” she advises. And if you’re not? That’s totally okay. Instead, you might be able to let someone you trust know that you are worried about your friend so that they can be there for them instead.
Time and place: “It’s important to make sure you are in a quiet, comfortable and private space,” says Williams. Also keep in mind that some people might find it easier to open up during an outdoor walk where there is less eye contact involved and no fear of being overheard.
Ask them: “Ask your friend if they are okay and let them know you have noticed that they aren’t themselves lately,” says Williams. And if they do open up, try not to worry about having ‘the right answer’. “You don’t have to fix the problem for your friend, but you can listen without judgment, encourage them to seek further support and ask them what you can do to help them during this tough time.”
What to do if you think your friend may be suicidal
If you are really worried about your friend’s mental health, you can ask them directly if they have been thinking about suicide.
“This can be a difficult and overwhelming question to ask so it can be good to do some research about how to approach this kind of conversation and what you will do if your friend tells you they have been thinking about suicide,” says Williams. “ReachOut has a range of information and tips about having conversations about suicide. If you are concerned about someone’s safety, call 000.”
Advice for writing back to text messages
Ever received a worrying text from a friend that you were unsure how to respond to? Whether they’re having a down day or are feeling bad about themselves, it can be a good way to start a conversation about mental health and may even be less intimidating for your friend than a face-to-face encounter.
“You can be there for them by validating their feelings, asking how you might be able to support them and even sharing links to support services like ReachOut, a local GP or other mental health professionals,” says Williams.
One important thing to remember if you find yourself in this situation is not to dismiss how your friend is feeling or tell them what to do to feel better.
“While we might want to make someone feel better by encouraging them to focus on the positives or offering solutions, this can feel like you are dismissing their feelings,” Williams explains. And just like we ourselves often just need someone to listen to our woes, being this person for your friend is sometimes the best thing you can do.
It’s also important to look after your own wellbeing, and if you’re unable to support them or text back at the time, that’s okay. “You can just let them know that you care about them, but you don’t feel like you’re in the right space to support them today and perhaps let them know when you would feel able to talk or text them about the issue.”
What to do if they refuse help or react badly
There’s always the fear that your friend might shut you down if you bring up mental health, or perhaps you’ve already tried and they wouldn’t hear it.
“If your friend reacts to conversations about mental health with anger or hurt feelings it can also make you feel bad or even frustrated,” says Williams. “Try not to take it personally and keep in mind that your friend could be dealing with some really intense emotions right now. It might help to return to the topic at a later time when you are both feeling more calm.”
And if they brush you off and refuse to talk about it, Williams says the best thing you can do is respect their wishes. “Be patient with them and let them know that you are there for them when they are ready to talk or get support.”
“However, if you are concerned for your friend’s safety, it could be important to contact emergency services or let someone else know — you can tell them you are going to do that and the reason why.”
It’s also important to make sure you are taking care of yourself and recognising your own boundaries.
“If a friend isn’t willing to seek help when it comes to their mental health and it's impacting your own wellbeing, you might need to take a break and come back to the friendship when you feel you are ready.”
Things you can do if words don’t work
A conversation is always a great place to start but if your friend isn’t willing or ready to talk to you, that’s okay. There are other ways you can show them that you care, and that support is out there.
“Do something to make your friend smile in the moment such as giving them a book you enjoyed reading or schedule some time for the two of you to just chill out together,” suggests Williams. “Do something that you know they enjoy like going for a walk, playing video games or getting a coffee together.”
And if you do want to suggest some help, Williams says to try an email. “You might share a list of different support services which they can look into when they’re ready. For example, at ReachOut young people can read articles, get tips and join anonymous online forums.”
Top 3 tips to remember
Our friends can be the closest people in our life and if you’re able to support your friend through a tough time, Williams has shared the most important things to remember:
#1/ Ask your friend how they are going and let them know if you are worried about them in relation to their mental health or suicide.
#2/ Listen without judgment to your friend if they open up to you about their mental health and don’t try to fix the problem for them.
#3/ Ask them how you can best support them and brainstorm some ideas together. For example, regular check-ins, scheduling in some feel-good activities like going for a walk together, going to the GP with your friend to talk about a mental health plan, or checking out support services like ReachOut online together.
*National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing, 22/07/2022, https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/health/mental-health/national-study-mental-health-and-wellbeing/2020-21
If you, or someone you know, needs support there are a number of services who can help including Lifeline (13 11 14), Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) or check out ReachOut.com. In an emergency call 000.
To hear from Maybelline’s Australian Brave Together voices & to find out more about the initiative, head to maybelline.com.au/bravetogether.
Main image credit: The Bold Type / Stan
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Samantha McMeekin was BEAUTYcrew's Editor from January 2020 to June 2023. She has worked as a journalist in the beauty and lifestyle industry for over 10 years. In 2019, she was nominated for Best Digital Writer at the BSME Awards for her work on GLAMOUR UK. If you ever meet her in person, she'll probably try to guess which fragrance you're wearing (she's got a humble 60% strike rate).