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Mental Illness: How to Support a Friend

Despite the fact that 1 in 4 adults between the ages of 18-24 have a diagnosable mental illness, negative stigma and stereotypes still exist. And now that suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death on college campuses, it is more important than ever to treat mental illness as what it is  – a disease. Too often mental diseases including, but not limited to, depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), are not taken seriously enough until it’s too late.

For people who are not familiar with mental illness, it can be difficult to help someone who is affected by one. Through personal experience, I’ve learned that common bits of advice like “It could be worse” or “You should try taking meds” are possibly the worst things that you can say to a person with a mental illness. 

I had a wake up call on November 3 when my best friend made a suicide attempt. I knew that he struggled with depression, but had no idea that he was feeling so low. Looking back, I realized that there were a lot of signs that I overlooked – like the way he talked about feeling lonely or hopeless. As much as I hate to admit it, I never gave his depresion the attention that it deserved. I know that many people have either been in my postition, or may find themselves in my position at some point in time. With this being said, it’s important to understand how to help someone who is dealing with a mental illness. 

Trying to help a loved one who has a mental illness can be emotionally draining and extremely confusing. However, it is definitely possible to help the ones you love deal with their mental diseases. This is what I’ve learned.

1.  Avoid Certain Phrases

Some pieces of advice that seem helpful actually prove to be the opposite. Try to avoid these phrases:

  • “There’s always someone who has it worse than you”
  • “Life isn’t fair”
  • “Just cheer up”
  • “You’re overreacting”
  • “I know how you feel” (if you’ve never suffered from depression)
  • “Have you considered medication?”
  • “Calm down”
  • “Stop feeling sorry for yourself”

Pieces of “advice” like these undermine the disease and makes it seem less serious than it actually is. Instead, let the person know that you are willing to help with phrases like these:

  • “I’m here for you”
  • “I’ll do my best to understand”
  • “You can get through this”
  • “You are not going crazy”
  • “Do you want a hug?”
  • “You are important to me”



2.  Try to Take Their Mind Off of It

If you notice that someone is suffering, try to engage him or her in activities that will momentarily take their mind away from what’s bothering them. Something as simple as grabbing coffee, seeing a movie or going to the zoo can serve as a great distraction. Show the person that you care by making an effort to be around them.


3.  Watch For Signs

If you notice a change in your loved one’s behavior, it probably means that something is wrong. People who commit suicide typically exhibit one or more of the following warning signs that are often overlooked.

Pay attention if you hear a person talking about:

  • Killing themselves
  • Having no reason to live
  • Feeling lonely
  • Feeling like a burden
  • Being in pain

Recognize behavior such as:

  • Loss of interest
  • Withdrawal from activities
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Isolation
  • Saying goodbye to friends and family
  • Giving away possessions
  • Acting recklessly
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol

Pay attention to changes in mood including:

  • Irritability
  • Aggression
  • Rage
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

It’s important to take these warning signs seriously. You can reach out to a person by speaking to them directly, calling the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or utilizing the AU Counseling Center (link). You can also suggest counseling groups, such as Recovery International, a mental health organization that hosts free groups meetings that are led by people with mental illnesses. They hold sessions across the country – check out their website to find a location near you. 


4.  Be There

According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, 18% of undergraduate college students have seriously considered suicide. To solve this problem, it’s important to know how to help someone with a mental illness. I’ve learned that the most important thing you can do is simply be there. Sometimes all a person needs is to know that they are not alone.  Instead of offering advice, just listen. Sometimes instead of advice, your loved one just wants to be supported. 


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Lauren Lumpkin is a freshman majoring in Public Relations and Strategic Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. This self-proclaimed "foodie" from Cleveland, Ohio loves writing for HerCampus and blogging. In her free time, you can find her blasting music in her dorm room, watching movies, or working on DIY projects. 
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