3 Ways to Help a Friend with a Mental Illness

Want to learn how to help a friend with mental illness? Read this therapist's advice.

You’ve noticed a change in your friend. Instead of being their normal bubbly and social self, they’ve become withdrawn and quiet. When you invite them out for your usual coffee run, they uncharacteristically turn you down. They always seem to be lost in thought and preoccupied, instead of being really present.

You’re worried about them. What’s your friend going through?

Or maybe you’ve noticed a change in the way your friend uses alcohol when you go out together. Their drinking has taken on an edge and it seems out of control — they seem to be leaning heavily on alcohol just to get through the week.

This isn’t like them. What’s going on?

Though there could be many reasons, one possibility is that your friend may be experiencing a form of mental illness. Mental illness is a very broad category and can include effects of grief, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, drug and alcohol dependence, or adjustment disorder.

In the first scenario, your friend may be experiencing anxiety, depression, or another type of mental illness. In the second scenario, your friend may be experiencing a substance use disorder. All of these disorders are very common. In fact, about 18 percent of the population experiences anxiety and around 7 percent of the population experiences depression. Additionally, more than 8 percent of the population struggles with substance dependence or abuse.

If your friend is struggling with a mental illness, here’s how can you help them.

Share what you’ve noticed

If your friend is experiencing a mental illness, they are likely feeling very alone in their struggle. By gently bringing up what you’ve noticed, you are offering your friend the opportunity to share the things they’ve been bottling up inside because they’ve been feeling isolated. For example, you could simply say something like, “You don’t seem to be feeling like yourself lately and I’m worried about you. Have you been feeling okay? I’d like to help if I can.”

Approaching the subject in this way lets your friend know that you know something is going on while still giving them space to decide how to share it with you. And it’s a way for you to let them know that they are not alone. That alone can be a huge relief for them.

Take a supportive role

One of the most important things for you to remember is that your friend needs you to take a supportive role. That means being there for them when they need someone to talk to and even just sitting with them in silence if they don’t want to be alone but also don’t feel like talking. Simply being a non-judgmental presence is important.

Your friend likely has a lot of people in the life telling them what they should be doing. What they may not have is someone who is willing to listen to how they’re feeling without judging them. You can be that person.

There are many ways to be supportive. When in doubt, simply ask your friend how you can help, but here are a few other suggestions:

  • Offer to run errands like grocery shopping
  • Help with chores like laundry or cleaning
  • Offer to help cook dinner
  • Invite them for a walk
  • Bring them their favorite coffee or tea for a quick chat
  • Ask them how they are doing from time to time
  • Give them space if they need time to be alone
  • Offer to drive them to appointments
  • Send them a supportive note

Encourage professional support

If your friend is struggling with a mental illness, they can find help. They don’t have to struggle with living with their symptoms on their own. A mental health professional can help your friend learn to manage their symptoms and treat their mental disorder using research-supported treatment methods.

Choosing to take a supportive role also means encouraging your friend to seek professional help. Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, your friend may be too embarrassed to contact a therapist or unsure of what might happen if they do. By gently encouraging them to seek professional treatment, you can help them move past the stigma around mental illness so that they can find relief from their symptoms.

While it might be tempting to be frustrated by your friend’s behavior or feel intimidated by the task of taking a supportive role, remember that your friend is still themselves — they’re just struggling with an illness. Just as you wouldn’t think twice to help a friend with a broken leg and crutches, you can do the same here. Your friend is struggling with an illness — it might be harder to see at times, but it is still an illness.

When in doubt, never be afraid to ask your friend what they need and how you can help.

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