Sometimes we get worried about the mental and emotional health of a loved one, friend or acquaintance. Perhaps a friend has confided in you that they are feeling sad and filled with despair. Maybe you’ve noticed a classmate struggling with stress – they’re not sleeping, they’re on edge and feel tremendous pressure to perform well. Or maybe you know of a friend who is what you suspect is an abusive relationship. You’d like to help – but you’re not sure how. It’s okay to feel awkward or apprehensive about doing so but it’s important to say something to the person you’re concerned about. Here are some tips to talk with them:
Know the symptoms and signs of someone who may be struggling with their mental health.
No two people who are dealing with mental health challenges will exhibit the same symptoms, but there are some that tend to be more common:
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Not eating or overeating
- Excessive irritability
- Sadness, crying a lot
- Experiencing physical pain for no reason
- Lack of interest in school or work
- Avoiding friends, family and social commitments
- Quieter than usual
- More boisterous than usual
- Feeling afraid of things that they were not afraid of previously
- Appearing wound up (can’t calm down, always hyper)
- Using alcohol or drugs excessively
- Being in risky sexual situations or exhibiting signs of out of control sexual behaviours
Most of us will experience at least some of these symptoms, but if they’re excessive, or are in combination, there’s likely something else going on. Basically any noticeable sudden or gradual change in behaviour is a sign of concern and warrants action.
Ask them how they’re doing
This is one of the toughest things to do but it’s one of the most important. It’s okay to feel nervous, and it’s okay to tell them that you’re feeling anxious about the conversation, but the first step is asking them how they are doing. Let them know you‘ve noticed that they don’t seem like themselves lately and that you’re worried about them. Its important not to judge them by pointing out that they’re drinking too much or that they’ve gained weight. You’re simply stating that they seem a little different and that you’re concerned and want to make sure that they’re okay.
If you suspect that someone may be depressed and have thoughts of suicide, its okay to ask them if they’ve had thoughts about killing or harming themselves. You will not give them the idea to contemplate or attempt suicide, but you may just give them the opportunity to admit that they have had those thoughts and then you can support them to get help.
It can be difficult but it’s important that you get comfortable with silence. Give them time to answer you. Don’t feel the need to fill the empty space with your words. Ask them, then be patient and listen.
Sometimes all the person needs is to express their feelings and have someone hear them. Sometimes even just sitting together in silence can be helpful to the person who is struggling. Just knowing they are not alone, and that if they’re ready to talk, you’re there for them can be helpful in improving their state of mind.
It’s natural for us to want to interject with stories of our own struggles or relate stories of other people you know who’ve gone through similar experiences. This can certainly be helpful to your friend, to know they’re not the only ones who have experienced what they’re feeling but let them do the talking first.
Also, don’t try to solve their problems. Sometimes they may just want to vent or talk about what they’re going through without having your try to fix things for them. In doing so, they may feel like you really haven’t heard them or that their concerns are not that big of a deal.
Of course, if they ask if you’ve gone through something similar or if you have any suggestions for getting through challenges, feel free to share them, but know that your role is first to just listen.
If your friend has agreed to a plan to feel better, you can provide support for that plan. Maybe they’ve decided to cut back on drinking – make sure to plan activities for you and your group that aren’t centered around a pub. Perhaps they want to lose some weight they’ve gained, join them in fun active pursuits. Keep them accountable if they’ve asked for your help – gently remind them that they agreed to attend an event that they’re now wanting to cancel. Also, cut them some slack too – none of us can be strong every single day. Offer to accompany them to therapist appointments.
Sometimes a friend may just go through a rough patch, or a feeling of depression that they come out of with a little bit of support and understanding from their friends and family. Other times, it doesn’t matter how much support or understanding you provide, they may need support from a professionally trained therapist. There is no shame in seeing a counsellor. We don’t hesitate to see a doctor when we have a physical concern, seeing a professional about our mental health is just as important and should have no stigma surrounding it whatsoever. That said, be sure to honour their request for confidentiality until they’ve told you otherwise. If your friend is dealing with severe symptoms at a time when you can’t access counselling (after hours, stat holidays, for example) you can suggest they call:
- Edmonton: The Crisis Centre call 780 482 HELP (4357)
- Greater Edmonton region: Rural Distress Line at 1-800-232-7288.
- Calgary: 403 266 HELP (4357)
Call 911 if needed
If you believe your friend may cause harm to themselves or to others, or you feel they are in danger from someone else (an abusive partner, for example) call 911 or proceed to your nearest emergency room. Mental health emergencies are legitimate emergencies and will be responded to.
Look after yourself too
Just like the airplane oxygen mask metaphor (always put your own mask on before assisting others) this situation is no different. Caring for and about someone who is struggling with mental health can take its toll on you as well. You may worry about your friend or be concerned that you will do or say something to make the situation worse. Be sure to keep a check on how you’re feeling and coping with this extra stress in your own life and be sure to make your health a top priority as well. A trained therapist may also be able to provide support to you as you go through this challenging time with your friend and help you to compartmentalize their challenges from your own. Excessive empathy can sometimes take its toll.
We wouldn’t hesitate to ask someone if they’ve seen a doctor is they had a swollen and bruised elbow – yet we are ill at ease to ask the same thing about a person’s mental health if they’re exhibiting signs that they’re not doing that well. We are afraid to offend them or to be accused of thinking they are “crazy”. It takes courage to be vulnerable and by having these conversations we fear that we will be offensive and rejected. Being courageous though can make a world of difference to someone who is struggling and sees that your concerns are coming from a place of caring, and that like your friend, you are human too and doing the best you can, and just want to make sure they are okay.