The hard questions and answers you NEED to consider if you want to be a better ally to your friends struggling with mental health.
The conversation surrounding mental health is filled with encouragement to check on your friends, and as important as that is, it prompts the question, “Okay, so I’ve called my friends...now what?”
Mental health's a completely different ball game. So how do you go from cheering on the sidelines to helping your friend stay in the battle?
It won’t be easy, but with an open mind, communication, and shit ton of patience, it is possible. Though I can’t give you definite answers, I can at least give you some insight on where to start.
Remember: Mental illness is different for everyone. This is just my advice on a few things you should begin thinking about and is entirely subjective. What helps my depression, may not help someone else and that’s okay. You just need to figure that out together.
Disclaimer: I am not, nor do I claim to be, a mental health expert. Much of this is based on personal experience. Further independent research is strongly recommended. These are simply things to consider and should not be used in place of professional help.
Q: What should I do if my friend won’t talk about things that bother them?
A: Boundaries are important. Your friend may never be comfortable talking to you about their problems and that’s okay!
If they seem uncomfortable, let them know they don’t have to open up if they don’t want to but can take a conversation deeper if they’d like. Remind them you’re here to listen without judgment; show them they can trust you and respect them if they’re not ready to.
Read the room. If they don’t want to get into it, don’t push them.
Q: Is there anything I shouldn't say if my friend is freaking out?
A: Honestly? If you can put it next to a “hang in there” kitten poster, I’d avoid it altogether.
Generalized phrases like “it’s gonna be okay, you’ll be fine” etc. can be meaningful at first but are too vague to offer much reassurance.
And if they're in the middle of freaking out over something you think is small don't question them about it! It can come off as dismissive and may make them feel worse or invalidate their struggles.
Perhaps you have the best intention but just want to know why your friend is freaking out — but this isn't the time to ask!
Your presence should come as comfort, not an interrogation. Instead, try reaffirming them.
Tell them that no matter how bad it is, you are in their corner, because you love them and you have their back, and you’ll figure that shit out together.
Q: My friend is spiralling and I don’t know what to do?!
A: In order to pull them out of their spiral, they need to stop spinning first. You need to get them to calm down and it’s not always just a heartfelt conversation.
If they agree it can be helpful, I’d recommend establishing what my friends and I call a “comfort zone.” A comfort zone can be anything and/or place that makes the person feel grounded.
When I’m headed towards a depressive spiral or find myself riddled with anxiety, I find wearing long sleeves and rewatching Supernatural calms me down. Watching a show (especially my favorite one) intentionally gives my mind something else to focus on instead of the fear or dark thoughts in my head. The long sleeves give me a feeling of safety and comfort. It may sound a bit lame, but this is how I come down.
**This example is specific to me, so be sure to help your friend figure out what relaxes them (like running, drawing, chilling with friends etc.) before you offer assistance on the situation.
Q: Should I text my friend everyday to see how they’re doing mentally?
A: Short answer? No, not really.
Unless this is a system you both agreed on or talked about, it can feel extremely belittling.
Just because someone deals with mental illness, doesn’t mean they’re incapable of taking care of themselves, nor do they want to feel like they’re being treated as such.
Check in with your friends regularly; anywhere between once a week to once a month should be a safe area, just ask them how they are and let them decide what they want to share.
Q: How can I help my friend if I don’t know what their triggers are?
A: You’re not psychic and no one’s asking you to be. Sometimes we understand what sets them off and sometimes we don’t.
Unfortunately, not everyone is privy to what may trigger them.
The best thing you can do is be honest about your concerns.
If they’re comfortable speaking about it, ask them if there are things or situations that make their mindset worse that you should be aware of, and things you can do to help manage attacks/low periods or help them work through it.
If they aren’t ready to talk or don’t know their triggers, the best way you can help them in the moment, is by offering them emotional support. Whether that means a hug, a venting session, an ice cream trip, or a nice long nap, is entirely up to the two of you.
Q: Idk if my friend struggles with mental health, do I wait for them to come to me?
A: No, mental illness or not you should always let your friends know you’re there for them!
Again, they may never open up to you, but I can say first hand, just knowing you have someone who’s willing to listen means a lot and will make it much easier for them to reach out in the future.
Q: If someone opens up to me should I give them emotional support or advice?
A: This will depend on who they are. It's not always one or the other, it's mostly about what you give first.
Personally, I prefer emotional support before any kind of advice. Not everyone is looking for you to solve their problems or make suggestions on their struggles. Sometimes we just want someone to listen and be there for us. Communication is always key, and if you're really concerned or are hesitant on what someone wants, then ask! It's better you learn directly than gamble with the answer and make them feel worse.
If this is the first time they’ve opened up and you're unsure, emotional support is always a safe bet. If they prefer advice, they’ll usually tell you or ask for it themselves.
Q: Am I a bad friend if I get overwhelmed or mess up?
A: No! And don’t ever think that!
Knowing how to help your friends is important but you must take care of your own mental health first.
You can’t compromise yourself and expect to effectively help others.
Take time for yourself too! You’re bound to mess up at some point and guess what? That’s okay! You’re human and your learning.
As long as you are dedicated to trying your best and showing them you care, you will be alright!
Q: What do I do if my friend is dealing with something I don’t know how to handle?
A: You need to remember you are not an expert and these issues can be very serious.
Don’t try to solve or help a friend work through a problem you know, or even think, you aren’t qualified to handle; it can do a lot more harm than good.
Help them find other healthy outlets for how they’re feeling and talk to them to gauge how they feel about seeing a therapist or a doctor. Remember, be concerned, not pushy (yes there's a difference). Sometimes therapy is a touchy subject, so be smart about how you ease into the conversation. Don't make them feel like you're trying to dump them onto someone else, but reinforce the idea of, "Hey, I care about you and I want to do what I can to make sure you're getting the help you need, even if it's not from me!"
As a mixed kid, I know mental health isn’t always a household conversation, so if the option for therapy isn’t viable, try helping them talk to someone they trust and respect (a teacher, an aunt, another friend etc.) and see if they can offer some assistance.
**If you believe you or your friend are in serious trouble that may lead to thoughts or acts of suicide or self harm, seek professional assistance or call one of the following hotlines for immediate help:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Trevor Lifeline (for the LGBTQ+ community): 1-866-488-7386
Both numbers are free, confidential, and available 24/7.
I hope these bits of advice help shrink the gap you may feel between yourself and the people in your life that are struggling.
To all who seek to be better allies, I thank you, and to those of us still fighting our demons I commend you. You are not alone and you are stronger than you know.
Always keep fighting,