Helping a friend experiencing mental health issues

It’s always hard to see a friend in distress, so, here, we’re exploring the steps you can take to be there for them during difficult times

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Happiful

When a close friend is having a mental health crisis it’s understandable to feel an array of powerful emotions such as fear, shock, confusion, or sadness. Perhaps they have been hospitalised because they are not safe, or able to manage, right now, or they are now working closely with a mental health team. Regardless of the type of mental health difficulties, or exact details of the situation, here – with help from counsellor Thalia Joyner – we share five tips for supporting a friend in crisis.

Adopt a curious, non-judgmental stance

One of the most impactful things you can do for a friend in crisis is to keep a flexible and open mind. Under stress, our brains tend to fill in the gaps about what ‘certainly’ happened in the past, or what will ‘definitely’ happen in the future. Being aware that thoughts may not be facts – especially during upsetting situations – can remind you to seek more information rather than jumping to conclusions.

Listen fully

When your friend is expressing themselves listen as fully as you can. Take the pressure off yourself, and remember you don’t need to have a perfectly formed response. It’s okay to say you need a moment to think before replying.

Communicating with a friend in crisis can be emotionally charged, as a mental health crisis tends to be an intense situation. Remind yourself that they may be distressed and uncomfortable, so may do or say things that they wouldn’t usually. Although you are likely to need time, space and support to process what is happening, please know that your friend probably needs friendship right now more than ever before.

Know what help you can and can’t offer

It is understandable to feel powerless, frustrated, or guilty; as much as you may wish to, it is not your responsibility to remove your friend’s pain, solve their problems, or make everything ‘better’. A person experiencing a mental health crisis is likely to need a team of support, involving multiple professionals, and/or organisations.

It is helpful to plan what kind of, and how much, help you can offer your friend. As counsellor Thalia Joyner explains, “Your wellbeing is important too; it can be really hard and upsetting watching someone you care about go through a difficult time and not knowing what to do. Be clear on what you can manage and what you can’t – with both yourself and the person you care about.”

Delivering a card to a friend in hospital, sending a ‘thinking of you’ text, or sharing space in silence can be thoughtful ways of showing care. Practical help such as looking after pets, childcare, shopping or cleaning can be invaluable, too. “Ask your friend, do they need help planning easy meals, finding information, support or making a ‘phone call for them,” Thalia suggests.

Communicate clearly, but gently

Once you know what support you can offer, tell your friend when you are available and by what means. Where possible, communicate your boundaries during a calm time, rather than in the heat of the moment. If your friend experiences multiple periods of crisis, consider making a plan with them in advance; people in crisis may be feeling vulnerable, ashamed, or worthless, so stating your boundaries with kind words and gentle explanations can bring untold comfort.

Learn about stigma

Although attitudes towards some mental health difficulties are improving, stigma continues – especially for conditions such as personality disorders, dissociative identity disorder, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. If a friend tells you about the discrimination they have faced, listen and believe them. Understand that accessing timely and relevant professional support is not always straightforward, and that some groups, such as LGBTQ+ people or ethnic minority groups, face multiple forms of discrimination and barriers. Validate your friend if they are facing stigma, as this can help them to feel seen, and alleviate any isolation.

A genuine friendship may be one of the closest, most consistent and fulfilling connections many of us have in our lives, making friends uniquely placed to offer support. While a crisis can evoke intense emotions, with clear communication and a little self-care, a true friendship can emerge stronger than it ever was before.

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