How Can I Help Someone Struggling with a Mental Health Issue When I’m Not?
It can be extremely difficult to watch a friend or family member struggle with a mental or
emotional issue, especially when you can’t identify with their pain. Even with the best of
intentions and genuine desire to help, it’s easy to end up hurting the person more. Here are a
few things to keep in mind.
Remember that mental illnesses like anxiety and depression can zap someone’s energy!
Showing up (for school, work, weekly book club—whatever!) was the hardest thing they did all
day. Dealing with a mental illness often leads people to shut others out. They might worry that
they will be judged, scolded, or asked to take on more than they feel they can manage.
Check in on your friend or family member who is struggling with a mental health issue. Don’t be
afraid to ask how they’re doing. It’s helpful for them to know that they are supported and not
forgotten. If possible, be willing to simply sit with them while they’re “in it.” This is not time to
try to fix their problem or give advice. Lots of times people with mental health issues know
what they need to do and beat themselves up over not having the strength to do it. Reassure
them with your presence. Just be there.
If they are open to talking about it, listen! Letting you into their emotional space can be
extremely vulnerable and scary for someone battling mental illness. Brené Brown, an expert on
empathy, warns against “silver-lining” the situation, or trying to point out all the good things
about the situation and telling the person to just ‘look on the bright side.’ It can be difficult to
know what to say when someone is feeling pain you can’t identify with. In those moments, the
best response is simply to thank them for trusting them with their feelings. Validation is key!
Encourage them to engage in activities they used to enjoy (going for a walk, seeing a movie
together, getting dinner), but be respectful if they decline. Quiet, one-on-one, or small group
situations are usually best.
Set healthy boundaries for yourself. It can be easy to become entangled in someone else’s
problems, especially when it is someone very close to you. However, it’s impossible to help
encourage someone toward mental and emotional health if you’re jeopardizing yours in the
process. Remember that if they are open to it, you can make suggestions, but you are not
responsible for the choices of others. You can feel with someone else in their pain, but that pain
does not have to become yours. A phone call in the middle of the night during a crisis might be
okay on rare occasions, but if it becomes a regular occurrence inhibiting your ability to function,
it might be time to set up a boundary. By setting parameters, you aren’t being selfish. You’re
protecting your health, modeling self-care, and fostering a relationship that prioritizes wellness.
Encourage your loved to seek professional help. Making that first step can be so difficult,
especially when mental illness like anxiety or depression are seriously impacting their
motivation. Offer to drive them to their appointment if they’re uncomfortable going alone or
meet them for coffee afterward if they want the accountability of following through. Consider
finding your own support system or counselor as well. We could all use a little help now and
Mental illness is scary for everyone it touches, whether you’re the one dealing with it first hand
or you feel like you’re helplessly watching someone else struggle. Know that you are not alone!
For more ways to help out someone you know struggling with mental health you can visit depression.org today.