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How to Support a Friend with a Mental Illness

Mental Illness | Paradigm Malibu

There are some circumstances in life that can quickly make us tongue tied, such as what to say to someone when a loved one has passed away. Along with death and dying, mental illness is another topic that most people have a hard time talking about. If you have a friend who is struggling with depression, anxiety, or another type of mental illness, this article will give you some ideas for what to say to a friend you’re concerned about.

 

There is Stigma Related to Mental Illness

 

When there is a stigma attached to something, it’s usually something people don’t want to talk about. For instance, addiction. When someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol, they often don’t want to admit that they are addicted because they know they will be judged for it. Take a look at a dictionary and you’ll see that stigma means “a mark of disgrace on a particular circumstance, quality, or person”. In other words, society holds a poor judgement or low opinion on that person, place, or thing.

 

Sadly, mental illness is a stigmatized topic. Someone struggling with mental illness might not want to admit that they have any kind of condition in fear that they might be judged. Along these lines, someone who wants to be supportive of a friend with mental illness might not know what to say. They don’t want to offend their friend, say the wrong thing, or pretend like everything is fine. For this reason, this article will give you ideas about what to say as well as what to do when you have a close friend or peer who facing mental illness.

 

How to Help a Friend with Mental Illness

 

As you can imagine, the first thing to remember when helping a friend is to be kind. Because mental illness carries a stigma, your first reaction might be judgment, fear, or worse, rejection of your friend. However, knowing that mental illness carries a stigma (produced by society) can help you make a different choice in response to your friend.

 

First, let your friend know that you’re there for them, and that you’ll do your best to support them. Here are some additional ways of expressing your concern and desire to help:

  • I’ve noticed that you look sad lately. Is there anything I can do to help?
  • Would you feel comfortable talking for a few minutes? I’ve been worried about you.
  • Is there anyone you might be able to talk to about the way you’ve been feelng?
  • Your parents might want to know about this. They care about you a lot. I can be there with you when you talk to them.
  • Have you experienced this before? Who helped you back then?
  • I’m here for you. Is there anything that’s been bothering you?
  • I care about you and your wellbeing. Have you’ve been feeling not yourself lately?
  • How can I help you with this?
  • If you’ve faced this before, what did you do about it then?
  • It looks like you might be going through a difficult time. Is there any way I can support you?
  • I’ve gotten to know you over the years, and it seems that you are not yourself lately. I’m concerned about your safety. Have you had any thoughts about hurting yourself?
  • Can I help you find more information about mental health for teens?
  • I would be happy to go with you to the school psychologist to talk about this.
  • Is there anyone in your family that already knows about this?

 

These are suggestions for what to say to a friend who might be facing mental illness. These are provided here because sometimes hearing that a friend is struggling with a psychological condition can leave us speechless. You might think to yourself that you might leave it to an adult, or maybe let your friend talk to a counselor about it and keep quiet. However, just by being kind, present, and accepting, you can help your friend a great deal.

 

How to Express Empathy with Your Friend

 

In addition to being kind, it can be very helpful express empathy toward your friend. To have empathy for someone is having a good understanding (and even feeling) what the other person is feeling. However, empathy isn’t sympathy. Empathy is simply having a good idea of the shoes the other person is walking in. It’s not feeling bad for someone or having pity for them. Instead, when you are empathetic with someone you really let them know that you see and understand them.  For instance, let’s say a friend says:

 

I’m having a really hard time with my thoughts. I feel anxious all the time and then I have a horrible thought that something is wrong. It creates panic in me, and sometimes I just can’t seem to control it.

 

Hearing this you might think to yourself, okay, my friend is experiencing anxiety and they’re having a really hard time with their thoughts and feelings. If you wanted to be empathetic, you might say to your friend in response:

 

It sounds like you’re having a hard time with anxious thoughts and feelings. I’m sorry that sounds really difficult. Is there anything I can do to help?  I wouldn’t mind talking to the school counselor about it with you.

 

In the response above, you simply stated what you were thinking in your head. You let your friend know that you understood what they are going through. This is being empathetic.

 

Other Tips to Keep in Mind

 

In addition to being kind and empathetic, there are some action steps that you might want to consider, especially if your friend is not doing anything about how they feel. You see, in some cases, mental illness can get worse over time. By sharing your observations or thoughts with an adult you might actually save your friends life. For example, let’s say your friend admits that they are experiencing suicidal thoughts. You might want to tell a school counselor, teacher, or your friend’s parent to help keep your friend safe. Here are some other things to keep in mind:

  • If needed, talk to an adult about your friend’s symptoms.
  • After comforting your friend, make a plan to take some action together, such as talking to someone.
  • Check in with your friend a couple of days later and see if they followed up on the plan you made together.
  • Spend time with your friend occasionally. Your companionship alone can be helpful for your friend’s emotional and psychological wellbeing.

 

These are suggestions for continuing to be there for your friend and supporting them through their recovery of mental illness.

Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, and Founder and Executive Director of Paradigm Treatment Centers, who has been a respected leader in the field of adolescent mental health for more than 20 years. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California, his Master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University, his Doctoral degree from Pacific University’s APA approved Clinical Psychology program, and completed his training at the University of California, San Diego’s APA approved psychology internship program.

Dr. Nalin has provided training and mentoring to students entering the field of psychology at institutions of learning including Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, UCSD, Pacific University, and Santa Monica College. He was also instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.

Dr. Nalin has appeared as an expert on shows ranging from CBS News and Larry King, to CNN, The Today Show and MTV. He was also featured in an Anti-Drug Campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

Dr. Nalin is a Diplomate of the National Institute of Sports Professionals and a Certified Sports Psychologist as well as a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist. He lectures and conducts workshops nationally on the issues of teen mental health, substance abuse prevention, and innovative adolescence treatment.

In 2017 Dr. Nalin was awarded The Sigmund Freud Foundation and Sigmund Freud University’s Distinguished Achievement Award in recognition of his work with youth in the field of mental health over the course of his career.

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