How to support a friend with a mental illness

Although mental health issues are sensitive, experts say friends can help those who are affected

Mental health resources on campus.
Mental health resources on campus.
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Graphic by Michaella Fortune

Even after recognizing the symptoms of mental illness in a friend, it isn’t always clear what steps to take next.

Students are among those who are at the highest risk of having a mental disorder. The 2013 Student Health Survey Report, carried out by Queen’s Health, Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS), found that 60.4 per cent of students “felt an overwhelming anxiety”, while 38.6 per cent “felt so depressed it was difficult to function”.

The rapid changes students experience in university can leave them particularly susceptible to mental disorders.

“[Students] can be jarred by several new stressors in their first year,” Cara Chen, the director of the Peer Support Centre (PSC), told the Journal via email.

“Changing academic demands … [being] far from close family, friends, and others in their primary support network. Forming new relationships, while being so unfamiliar with your surroundings, can be quite intimidating.”

According to Mike Condra, the director of HCDS, the consequences of these stressors can be severe.

“If the toll becomes too great,” Condra told the Journal via email, “then a mental health problem can develop.”

As such, the vast majority of students will come in contact with a mental illness at some point in their academic career. Here are some steps on how to assist a friend who has a mental illness.

The initial conversation

They haven’t said anything to you yet, but the signs are there. Don’t be afraid to ask. Find a quiet, appropriate environment where you can have the conversation. According to Chen, it’s best “to say what you see, not what you think you see.” It’s important not to make assumptions and to try and diagnose, but to instead explain what you’ve noticed.

A friend may not tell you right away what they’re experiencing — sometimes because they don’t fully understand it themselves — so it’s important to be patient and non-judgemental, and to assure them of your love and support.

Conversations after

If a friend has confided in you, it’s important that your support doesn’t completely disappear. Don’t ignore or avoid the topic. A friend may make small comments about how they’re feeling, and it’s important to pick up on them.

It may be tempting to crack a joke to lighten the mood, or to brush it off. However, such reactions can make the other feel as though you’re making light of the situation, or minimizing their bravery in speaking openly about their experience.

“Ask open-ended questions that encourage an honest and dynamic dialogue,” Chen said. “Avoid ‘why’ questions, as they can seem accusatory.” Don’t be afraid to ask someone if they’re struggling. This lets them know you’re still available and thinking of them, but also gives them an opportunity to change the subject. That said, it’s also important that you don’t only talk about mental illness — it’s not the only thing in their life. It’s important to be supportive, not to smother.

Be there

Although a friend who is mentally ill may want to socialize less, friendship can play a critical role in the recovery process.

Even if they decline to join every time you invite them to an activity, it’s important to keep asking and to find ways you can spend time together in a setting that makes them more comfortable.

Don’t play psychiatrist

Naturally, when we see a friend in pain, we want to help them. But in the arena of illness there are limitations. “The important thing to remember when supporting someone with a mental illness is that it is not your job to fix them, nor are you solely responsible for their recovery or happiness,” Chen said.

“The biggest misconception is that being a friend, a supporter, and listening to the person in distress and guiding them to professional help is not ‘helping’ them,” Condra said.

Know your resources

Helping a friend seek professional help is an extremely important step.

“Do some research on the resources in your area that might be helpful to your friend’s struggles,” Chen said. “Respect that it is ultimately their decision to seek professional help, but keeping them informed of their options and encouraging them on their journey gives them the support and confidence to work towards recovering.”

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