1 in 5 Americans is battling a mental health problem. If it’s not you, it’s one of your friends or family members. Mental illness isn’t visible on the outside. It’s not like a broken arm. You don’t get to wear a cool colored cast and have everyone sign it as a show of sympathy. You’re dealing with it alone in the quiet corners of your mind.
This makes it easy to miss when someone you care about is struggling. But if you’re paying attention, there are a few telltale signs that can signal something is wrong:
- They withdraw and don’t want to hangout as much.
- They’re checked out and spacy when you’re together.
- They seem anxious or overwhelmed about small details.
- Their behavior is more risky or impulsive than normal.
- Evidence of self-harm or drug-use
Once you know something is off, it can be hard to sit by and watch them struggle. People often think, “There’s nothing I can do for them” or “It’s not my place” or “They’ll reach out to me when they’re ready.” But in reality, you can be a lifeline for them by reaching out and taking the first step to check in.
It can be difficult and uncomfortable to ask someone about their mental health. For so long, it was a topic people didn’t talk about. Remember that this is just a normal, chill chat between friends. You don’t need to go into it demanding to know the state of their mental health. You can just start with a simple question, “How are you doing, really?” and if they respond that they’re doing fine, don’t be afraid to ask a second time. “Are you sure? Things seem a little off.”
Usually, they’ll be more willing to open up after the second question. And if they’re not, that’s okay too. Remind them that you care about them. You’re there for them if they need someone to talk to. It’s important that they feel loved and respected in this initial conversation. You can be a safe person for them to talk to in the future, judgment free.
If they’re willing to open up… just listen. Other than validating their feelings and reminding them that mental health problems are normal, you don’t have to offer advice. In fact, most people don’t want to hear your advice at that point. They just want to be heard
When the time is right, share the facts about mental illness with them. There are a lot of myths surrounding mental health. Get educated about what’s true and what's not. You can share the signs or behavior changes that you have noticed in them. Remind them that the symptoms and effects of mental illness are not their fault. It can take time to learn how to cope with and manage the side effects.
Encourage them to get professional help and use available resources. It’s great to open up to a trusted friend but it’s important to take the next step and get a proper diagnosis. Today, 56% of adults with diagnosable mental health problems and 80% of children and adolescents don’t receive treatment. Therapists are trained to work through what you’re dealing with, diagnose the problem and equip you with techniques and sometimes prescriptions to treat the illness.
If you or your friend can’t afford therapy or don’t have a school counselor to talk with, there are other options available. One place to start is Mental Health America's website. It lists different types of resources available, peer groups in your area and community centers you can visit. Another resource is the Crisis Text Line website. They list what to do in different scenarios, like if someone is dealing with anxiety, loneliness or suicidal thoughts. If you or your friend need emergency help, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24-hour crisis center, text HOME to 741741, call 911, or go to the nearest emergency room.
Because you opened the conversation, offered them support and encouraged them to get further help, you are now someone they can trust. Check in occasionally and ask them how they are doing. Mental illnesses do not go away easily and for some they are a lifelong battle. It takes time to accept this and begin working through solutions.
Even then, dealing with a mental health problem is like facing waves in the ocean, things go up and down. Some days are good, others… not so much. When you see the signs of distress, shoot a text over, drop off a snack or offer to take them on a drive to vent. These little acts of service can make a world of difference to someone in the midst of a mental health battle.
Still don’t feel ready to start that conversation or be a source of help? Check out seizetheawkward.org. They have tutorials about how to start the difficult conversation of asking about someone’s mental health and interviews with celebrities who have dealt with mental illness themselves. This interview with Billie Eilish on how to start the conversation is a good place to start: https://youtu.be/_8FdA7CwDJM.
The greatest gift you can give your friend or family member (or even yourself!) is to not define them by their diagnosis. They are still the same person you loved and enjoyed spending time with before... that hasn’t changed. When you show that your relationship is more important than a word like “anxiety” or “depression” you show you’re there to stay. Through the good days and the bad days and all the waves, you can be a rock for them to rely on.