Mental health conditions are age-old illnesses. But with the constant stress about the COVID-19 pandemic and its long list of ripple effects in the past year, the number of people reporting symptoms of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression have risen dramatically. Mental illnesses are widespread diseases, a pandemic that has been around long before COVID-19. Yet, even today, there still remains a stigma surrounding mental health. I believe this is what leads people to inaction when they see their friend struggling with symptoms of one of these illnesses, be it anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, or something else. Still, I think a lot of people do want to help their friends, but may not know how exactly to do so. I hope the following tips will give you some ideas.
1. Learn about the signs and symptoms
Believe it or not, mental health conditions can sometimes be hard to recognize, even for the person experiencing it. Last fall, I started to feel fatigued, apathetic, and unmotivated in school. It was halfway through the semester, so I assumed I was just experiencing burnout from the notorious “midterm season.” But when that midterm burnout continued for weeks and then months, I suspected that I was experiencing something more serious. Soon after, it was determined that everything I was feeling was a symptom of a common mental illness. I could not believe it. My concept of this condition was vastly different from the reality I was facing. It is not uncommon to have misconceptions about mental illnesses, which is why it is important to educate yourself about them. One way to do this is by watching YouTube videos. Just make sure that the channel you subscribe to is hosted by a trusted source, such as a mental health professional. Two YouTube creators I recommend for mental health education are psychiatrist Dr. Tracey Marks and therapist Kati Morton, both of whom run self-titled channel names. Remember, if your friend seems sadder than usual or frequently turns down offers to hang out, try not to take this personally. These may be symptoms of their mental illness. He or she may really want to hang out, but the mental health condition isn’t making that a possibility. It is important to familiarize yourself with your friend’s condition so that you can offer extra support when you spot symptoms. In my own experience, responding to text messages seemed so taxing when I was struggling with my mental health. I explained this to my friends, and they understood and gave me space to respond when I felt better.
As simple as it sounds, having a listening ear may be exactly what your friend wants. Oftentimes, those struggling with their mental health feel like a burden to others if they reach out to talk, so reaching out first may be the best place to start. Let them know that they can share only as much as they are comfortable sharing. If your friend is very honest about what she is feeling, try your best to understand what she is going through. Instead of denying or minimizing the feelings, validate them. It can be hard to put these feelings into words. Lastly, don’t try to fix your friend’s condition. We all want to help a friend who is going through a tough time. But even if your intentions are good, attempting to “cure” your friend’s mental illness may not make her feel better. Taking a moment to just listen to her is more likely to make her feel loved, cared about, and supported. And isn’t that what we all want?
3. Make sure she has support
When you are talking to your friend, ask her if she has found support through a counselor or therapist if that is something that she would like. It is extremely important that she has a trusted professional to talk to on a regular basis, not only for her but also for you. Do not put pressure on yourself to fulfill the role of a therapist with her, as this may harm your own mental health, but DO encourage her to seek therapy if she has not already. Although I advocate for talk therapy, this does not have to be the only form of treatment. There is a whole world of medication and alternative treatments out there. You can also incorporate multiple treatment methods into your treatment plan. Personally, my plan includes ongoing weekly therapy, which I supplement with daily meditation and short walks outside. You should also check in with your friend about her social support systems, such as friends and family. You want to make sure that there are others there to support her if you can’t.
4. Offer to help out with small tasks
For those with depression especially, accomplishing small, everyday tasks such as preparing meals or doing chores can sometimes seem impossible when their condition is at its worst. If you suspect your friend is struggling with this, offer to help her. This can be as simple as offering to pick up food for her from the dining hall if she is too exhausted to go out. If you aren’t sure what tasks are most difficult for her, ask her and try to help out as best you can. However, it is crucial that you set boundaries when doing this in order to protect your own mental health. Even if you want to drop everything and put all your time and energy into helping your friend, you need to remember to take care of yourself too.
5. Continue checking in with/supporting them
To put it plainly, helping a friend who is struggling with mental health is not something you can just check off your to-do list. It often requires continued support through the tough times and even after she appears to be feeling better. Even if your friend seems happier or less anxious, she may still be masking her true feelings behind a smile. I’ve definitely done this with my friends because I didn’t want to burden them or “bring down the mood” when we are hanging out. But this almost never makes me feel better. In fact, I usually feel worse when I come back home after an outing because I know my friends are probably willing to help me if I was just open and honest with them. This brings me to my point that it is so important to check in with your friend frequently about her mental health. Ask her how she’s feeling and if there is anything she needs. Give her encouraging words and let her know that you are there for her. There are endless ways to check in with your friend. When I shared my mental health struggles with a member of a religious group at my school, she reached out to me the next day over text to ask how I was doing. Simple acts such as this go a long way when someone’s mental condition is making them feel down, fearful, or alone.
We all care about our friends’ health and want to help them feel their best, but it can sometimes be hard to know where to start. I hope these tips have given you some ideas on how to help your friend out. Now that you have read about these strategies, I encourage you to try just one thing you read about today. If all you do today is send an encouraging text message to that friend, that’s okay! Just take it one step at a time. When it comes to mental health support, something is better than nothing.