How Can I Help My Friend With Mental Illness?

I’ve had a lot of people in my life who have wanted to help me in my struggles with mental illness, but haven’t known how. I’ve noticed that because of not knowing how to help, they often don’t try to help. I have had friends who have pretended that my illness doesn’t exist or have disregarded it as they see it as too hard to address. There are a few things simple things you can do for a friend with mental illness, even if you find it intimidating. Please be aware, however, that this is based entirely on experience and thus not an extensive or authoritative list.

  1.    Ask them

I think the best thing to do first is to ask your friend: ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’ This seems so straightforward, yet I’ve found a lot of my friends have really struggled with it. Everyone is different, and while this list offers a range of ideas, some may be inappropriate to use in particular contexts – you need to know what your friend needs.

They might tell you exactly what you can do to help, or they might have absolutely no idea. They might be enthusiastic about you wanting to help, or they may want to do things on their own or with minimal support. However they respond, respect that decision. And if they have no idea – I didn’t when I was first asked this – that doesn’t mean there’s no way for you to help them. In fact, there’s plenty you can do.

  1.    Talk to them about it

Don’t avoid the issue. Directly ask them about their mental health. Ask them how their treatment is going and what they think about it – whether that treatment be medications, therapy, or something else. Directly ask them if they feel suicidal, and if so, if they have made any plans. Do not shy away from asking these questions – it is without a doubt the most helpful thing my friends do for me. Not only do people know when I am not safe and they can ensure I get help, I don’t feel alone in my struggles when my friends directly ask me about them. I know they care.

You may be hesitant to ask about suicide because you might not know what to do if you find that they do have plans. It’s not, however, up to you to take on this situation alone. Encourage your friend to seek help. Depending on the immanency of the situation, this might mean calling the Crisis Assessment and Treatment Team (1800 629 354), calling Lifeline (13 11 14), or supporting them to arrange to see a health professional. If your friend is in immediate danger, call the police on 000.

For the most part, all you have to do after you ask about their health is listen. Just listen. It helps a lot when I can just talk out my struggles, to have a friend that doesn’t give advice but listens and asks about my experiences with genuine interest. Being told ‘you just need to stop thinking that way’, ‘snap out of it’, or ‘everyone goes through this’ is demeaning to my experience and often makes me feel worse; it is likely your friend feels the same.

  1.    Reassure them

For me, as I have internalised so much of it, the stigma of mental illness feels like half the battle. It can feel like it’s my fault I’m not getting better, or that I’m just immature, weak and dramatic. You can help by fighting the stigma. When your friend confides in you, tell them they are doing so well and you’re proud of them. Tell them you admire them. Tell them you love hanging out with them and love being their friend. Tell them it’s okay if they’re sick, and they should take care of themselves just as they would if their illness was physical. Most of all, tell them you love them. It is incredibly reassuring to know that someone cares about me when I’m trapped in misery and anxiety.

  1.    Don’t expect things to change

It is likely that you want to help your friend so that they can get better. Sometimes, however, people live with mental illness for their whole life. Or they might take years to make slight improvements. You need to accept this and love them right where they are. Friends have tried to help by saying that things will get better. While well-intentioned, comments like this make me feel like I’m under enormous pressure to constantly be improving. Fighting mental illness is exhausting, and sometimes your friend might not even want to fight it. That’s okay. Respect that there are different ways to approach mental illness, and improvement may not look the way you expect it to.

  1.    Keep in contact

Unfortunately, I lost many friends in the years my mental health worsened. My illness held me back from staying in touch with them as I was convinced they were better off without me. It was only the friends that constantly took initiative to keep in touch with me that could help me. Ideally, you should never have to try and maintain a friendship with someone who doesn’t reciprocate, but we don’t live in an ideal world. If you know that your friend’s illness may be keeping them from reciprocating as a friend normally would, don’t blame them. It may be tiring, but if you want to show you care about them – reach out. It’s a meaningful thing to keep hanging out with them, keep sending them messages, keep talking with them about what they’re going through.

  1.    Be with them through tough times

While mental illness sucks all the time, there are times that are worse than others. For instance, if you know your friend is changing their medication, it is likely there will be a period of a few days where things will be very tough. Ask them how you can help, and be physically with them if you can.

Another such time is if your friend is admitted to hospital. First, ask if you can visit. If they accept, visit them often. What seems like two days to you can feel like a week to them. I was lucky enough to have my best friend and parents visit me every day, and another friend visited every three days or so. I don’t know how I would have survived that experience without their support.

  1.    Look after yourself

Please don’t dismiss this one. You need to look after yourself and make sure you are okay in order to help your friend. Make sure you get enough time alone for yourself. Make sure you have a support network of people you can talk to when you feel overwhelmed or weighed down by your friend’s troubles. If you struggle with mental health, make sure you don’t over-stretch yourself. Avoid any topics that trigger you or make your condition worse. And communicate with your friend about this – let them know how you are feeling. It may be uncomfortable, but if your friend cares about you and your wellbeing, they will understand.

There are many ways to support a friend with mental illness. Some of these suggestions are harder than others, but if you want to help, it’s worth the effort. It’s important, however, not to fall into thinking that you can save your friend. You’re there to help and support them, not to be their knight in shining armour. Remember that as long as you show your friend you love them and you’re there for them through the thick and thin, you’re being a big help to them.