You have just found out that your friend has a mental health condition. You’re feeling overwhelmed with emotion — worried about their health, confused about the condition, and relieved that they seem to be coming to terms with it.
But most of all, you just want to help. And you’re not quite sure how to do it.
Caring For a Friend With a Mental Health Condition: The First Step
Resist the urge to panic.
Mental health problems are very common. Every year, 1 in 5 adults experiences a mental health condition — and 1 in 17 adults lives with a serious mental illness (e.g. schizophrenia, bipolar disorder). Fortunately, many of these conditions can be treated successfully.
Here are six things you can do to help a friend who has been diagnosed with a mental health condition:
1. Don’t Say, “Just Calm Down.”
Calming down isn’t always easy, especially for someone with a condition such as anxiety. When you say, “calm down,” a few different things could happen:
Your friend may get more frustrated or angry that you don’t understand what they’re going through. This can just make them more anxious, and can take a toll on your relationship.
It’s also possible that your friend will suppress their emotions. That means that they push their feelings inward, in order to appear calm. However, the emotions don’t actually go away — they just fester inside. This can make your friend’s mental health condition even worse.
2. Ask What You Can Do to Help.
It’s hard to know exactly what someone needs, even if they are your best friend. And even when you have the best intentions, you may end up giving them the opposite of what they need.
Rather than guessing, be straightforward and ask your friend, “How can I help you?”
Asking this simple question doesn’t just lead you in the right direction and show that you care — it also helps with control issues. Many people with mental health disorders feel helpless, and as if they are losing control. By telling you what they need, they are taking ownership and starting to regain control.
3. Leave Advice to the Experts.
When you want to help your friend, it can be tempting to take on the role of problem-solver. You might consult Dr. Google, or think about your own experiences, and suggest treatments or medicine.
While that instinct probably comes from a good place, it’s not the best thing for your friend.
Everyone’s medical needs are different, and what helped you or your cousin might not help your friend at all — or might even make things worse.
However, if your friend is avoiding treatment altogether, it’s OK to encourage them to start seeking treatment. They may be avoiding it for several reasons — from being embarrassed about mental health care, to not being able to get to appointments.
You can help your friend by reassuring them that there is nothing to be ashamed of — mental health conditions are extremely common, and many can be treated effectively. Offer to give rides to appointments, or to be on-call if they’re nervous about side effects when starting a new medication.
4. Know When to Be There, and When to Give Them Space.
There are many times when just being present is enough to help your friend, even if you don’t know exactly what to say or do. But at other times, giving your friend space is just as helpful.
Make sure your friend knows that you are always there for them, but that you don’t want to crowd or overwhelm them. If they do want some space, it’s OK to text or call to see how they’re doing — just not every five minutes.
Just make sure to take note if your friend always wants to be alone, and seems to be isolating themselves from friends and family. This can be a warning sign that the mental health condition is becoming worse, and that your friend might be considering a drastic step, such as self-harm or taking their own life. If you suspect that that might be the case, get your friend professional help immediately.
5. Learn About the Condition.
It’s hard to understand what your friend needs if you don’t understand what they’re going through. When you don’t have the condition yourself, it can be tricky to know exactly what your friend is dealing with. But getting educated on the condition is a good place to start.
Learning about the condition shows your friend that you care, and that you’ve taken the time to try to understand. It also allows you to have a better understanding of why they might be acting a certain way, and know what may be in store for them in the future.
6. Take Care of Yourself.
It’s not uncommon for one person’s mental health condition to affect another person’s health. As you’re caring for your friend, you may find yourself stressed and struggling with both physical and emotional health.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that since your friend has a mental health issue, your problems aren’t significant. You deserve love and care, too. And you can’t be there for your friend, to the best of your ability, if you’re not there for yourself, first.
Keep up a healthy diet and exercise routine, and try to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. If you need a pick-me-up in the middle of the day, but you’re running low on time, take just five to 10 minutes for one of these quick, relaxing activities:
- Deep breathing
- Listening to music