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As any good friend knows, friendship doesn’t end when good times end. Supporting those you care about should happen during both the highs and lows.
For many people, hard times can bring bouts of illness both mental and physical. Since the risk of developing depression is about 10-25% for women and 5-12% for men, there is a good possibility that you’ll become friends with a person who has depression or any other mental illness.
If your friend is struggling with a mental health condition, it can be hard to know what to say and how to be supportive. You might even be tempted to not say anything to the person, for fear of saying the wrong thing and making their hardship worse. With your companion in a tough situation, how can you be sure of the best way to help them?
While every situation is different, there are some broad dos and don’ts everyone should follow when supporting a friend with mental illness. To be the best friend you can be, here are a few things you should and should not do when talking with your struggling companion:
DO Ask Questions
One of the best ways to overcome awkwardness surrounding mental illness is to be open and honest. Start by asking simple questions, and listen carefully to how your friend answers. Asking the right questions can help your friend feel like you’re a safe confidant. Listening will also help you better see what the other person is feeling, thinking, and struggling with. Here are a few appropriate questions to ask:
- I’ve been worried about you lately. Can we talk about what you are experiencing?
- It seems like you are going through some difficult times. What I can do to support you?
- I’ve noticed you’ve been (sleeping a lot, not eating much, talking less lately, etc.]. Is everything okay?
By showing concern and lending your ear, you’ll be better able to support your friend.
DON’T Make Comparisons to Your Own Struggles
If your friend does open up and shares their experiences, don’t interrupt, and don’t try to compare their experiences to your own. Chances are, they need you to listen, and not to minimize what they’re feeling.
DO Give Them Space if They Request It
Sometimes, those experiencing mental illness don’t have the energy or desire to share their feelings, even with their closest friends. Though it may seem like they’ve got armor thicker than the 5-inch metal plating on the President’s personal limo, don’t take their distance personally. Instead, give them space. Tell them you’ll check back at a later time, and that you’re ready to listen if they change their mind.
DON’T Stop Contacting Them Completely
If you do give your friend some time alone, still ask them how they are doing from time to time. If you believe your friend is in danger of self-harm, ignore their request for privacy and seek emergency medical help.
DO Help Them Find Support
When the time seems appropriate, offer to help your friend find access to mental health resources. Ask if they’d like you to help them find mental health hotlines, clinics, or therapists that can provide them with more support. A mental health professional can provide the best treatment strategies and coping mechanisms to help the person find relief.
DON’T Believe Everything You Read Online
While you can help your friend research different mental health symptoms and resources, be wary of less-than-reputable websites. Stigma about mental health remains strong in our society, and it’s easy to find misinformation and bad advice online. Since 94% of people cited web design as the reason they mistrusted a website, if a blog or article seems questionable, look for information elsewhere.
DO Practice Patience
Finally, remember that mental health conditions can’t be treated with a magic pill or an overnight stay in a hospital. To be a truly good friend, don’t give up on the person if their mental health symptoms continue for several months or even years. After all, losing your companionship will not help them heal any faster. Though it might not always be enjoyable, you can still have fun and find happiness together on good days. With patience and understanding, you can be a key part of the support network that helps your friend live through a mental illness.