If you want to be there for someone who is struggling, it’s clear that you are already a good friend.

It can be hard to know exactly how to help them, or what to say.

It can also be hard to know what exactly is going on. Mental health is complex and we all respond differently.

How do I know if my friend has a mental health problem?

Below are some typical signs of mental ill health but it’s important to remember that everyone responds differently depending on many different factors. If you know the person well, you may notice changes in their behaviour or mood.

Signs of depression

People who are depressed may:

  • have low confidence
  • lose interest in activities they normal enjoy
  • lose their appetite
  • get tired easily
  • be tearful, nervous or irritable.
  • may feel suicidal.

Signs of anxiety

People experiencing anxiety may:

  • have difficulty concentrating
  • be irritable
  • try to avoid certain situations
  • appear pale and tense
  • be easily startled by everyday sounds.

Here are a few ways you can support them:

1. Consider the time and place

If you’re initiating the conversation take the time to think about the time and place. It’s best to choose somewhere you can talk openly, and a time when you can listen actively, without rushing or checking your watch.

2. Be prepared for setbacks

The person you’re reaching out to might not be ready to talk, and that’s okay. If you reach out and they dodge conversation or say it’s not something they want to talk about, it doesn’t mean the conversation is a failure. You’ve still let your friend or loved one know you’re concerned, and you’re there for them if they need you.

3. Ask gentle questions

Asking gently and compassionately can help your friend or loved one explore their options. You might ask how long they’ve been feeling this way, or if they need support to see a doctor (GP).

4. Know your own boundaries

It’s great for you to reach out and offer support, but it’s also important be mindful of where your expertise or capacity to help is limited. You might need to refer someone on to a professional or other support services.

5. Know who to call if there is a crisis

do your research to see what support groups are available in your local area. If someone is at risk of hurting themselves or someone else, you should call 000 or reach out to a trusted person, like a parent, teacher, or health professional immediately.

6. Avoid minimising language

Try not to use language like “don’t worry”, “cheer up”, or “it’ll be better tomorrow” – language like this can make someone feel as though you’re minimising or trivialising their experience.

Also, try not to over-react by magnifying the issues and involving too many people. Avoid any fearful responses by reacting to unusual or eccentric behaviour by amplifying your own anxiety. Try to also avoid personalising what they are going through by telling them things like, “this is what worked for me, so it will work for you.”

7. Don’t diagnose

It’s important not to offer your own diagnosis of what they’re going through, or debating the facts of their experience.

8. Avoid trying to ‘fix’ the problem.

Though it is incredibly hard to see a friend or loved one hurting, it’s important to understand that mental illness is complex, requires patience, and won’t just disappear over night. Instead listen actively, practice patience, ask gentle questions, and suggest different ways for your loved one to seek support.

9. Try not to judge, analyse or question experiences you can’t relate to.

Experiences of mental illness are unique to each individual and can manifest in very different symptoms, behaviours and feelings. Try to listen without judgement, and to respond calmly, without exhibiting shock or alarm.

If a friend or loved ones need professional support you have a range of options.

If someone is at risk of hurting themselves or someone else, call 000 immediately, even if they ask you not to. For a friend or loved one who isn’t sure what they’re experiencing, or needs immediate support, it’s best to go straight to a GP.

If you’re friend or loved one is ready to talk to someone and seek support, they might use a service like Radiant to find and connect to a counsellor or mental health professional that feels right for them.

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