How to Talk to a Friend about Their Mental Health

It’s no secret that this year has been one big rollercoaster ride that never seems to end. All the loop-de-loops are making our heads spin, and our emotions have been suffering from vertigo. There’s no doubt that the pandemic, the newest eruption of racial injustices, and now the election have placed multiple stressors upon our society. These stressors have resulted in the decline in many people’s mental health or have emphasized problems that were already there. 

To be clear, I’m not a mental health specialist or a qualified psychologist, but I’ve had a lot of experience in being a friend. So the advice that follows are all things I’ve simply learned from being a listener, from being curious about other people’s experiences, and from my mother who does happen to be a social worker. Therefore this conversation is ideally for someone who may need some encouragement to receive professional help or who just needs one person that cares.

men and mental health Photo by Fernando @cferdo from Unsplash

First, it’s helpful to know some warning signs to look for. Mental illness includes all types of struggles with ranges of severity. (By severity I mean the amount of impact on daily functioning, not importance. Mental health always deserves to be treated as an equal to physical health!)

However, some common warning signs for young adults are: feelings of excessive sadness or worry, avoiding friends/social activities, extreme mood or personality changes, misuse of substances, intense concern with appearance/weight, and changes in sleeping habits. That being said, it’s important to recognize that mental health struggles can also seem invisible because it's still a subject that remains engulfed by a stigma. 

So once you’ve noticed these signs, how do you start a conversation? You could start with, “Hey, I’ve noticed you’ve been kind of down lately, are you okay?” or “I’m here for you if you ever want to talk.” Even just saying, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I care about you,” could help someone in more ways than many of us realize.

If you don’t know what to say, start with creating a safe space for this person, a place where they feel they can be vulnerable. Sometimes all someone needs is for somebody to listen. If they don’t seem open to talking to you, as a friend you could also help them find trusted individuals that they would be comfortable talking to- a family member, a religious leader, a sports coach, etc.

Woman Wearing Blue Top Beside Table Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

Once the conversation is started, try to direct them to some self help or grounding tools. There are many techniques that can help someone get through a stressful day, but one that my friends have found helpful is the 5,4,3,2,1 technique: tell your friend to close their eyes, plant their feet on the ground, and do a couple of deep breaths. Once they open their eyes, ask them to name five things they can see, four things they can touch, three things they can hear, two things they can smell, and one thing they can taste.

Another thing that’s easy and helpful is just listening to music!

Sometimes friends will need more than just self help techniques, and if this is the case, encourage them to talk to a professional. Remember, everyone comes from different backgrounds and experiences, so they may not be open to professional counseling. But try to remind them that mental health professionals are there to help. It’s their job!

Specifically at AU, there is the counseling center that is working hard to improve available resources during this time. They have virtual counseling appointments, referrals to other private resources, and even more ways to help a fellow student get help!

people exchanging a paper heart Photo by Kelly Sikkema from Unsplash

Keep listening, follow up with your friends after these conversations, and continue to let them know you care. Keep asking open-ended questions and encouraging help, but know your limits. As a friend, you must remember that you may not be able to solve every problem, as much as it might upset you to feel that way.

If all else fails, please go to someone you trust for help with the situation- an RA, an advisor, a professor, etc. This is especially important if you’re worried that your friend might be a danger to themselves. It might upset them that you told someone, but it could also save their life and they will realize that eventually.

As for yourself, if you are experiencing any of the warning signs, be open to the conversations, try some of the self help tools, or go to a trusted resource. It’s okay not to be okay, and learning to open up is the biggest part of the battle. 

Photos: Her Campus Media 

Sources:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5