How To Support A Friend With A Mental Health Problem

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Life is not always a breeze. We all go through some really tough times, life is just full of ups and downs. But some of us can stay stuck, feeling completely alone and as a result, suffer in silence. 

According to the Mental Health Foundation,2 in 3 people report having experienced a mental health problem in their lifetime.’

That is a lot of people. But do you know how to spot the signs, or support someone suffering with a mental health problem?

It’s not always obvious when someone is not feeling happy, stable, or themselves. Some people are very open about their mental wellbeing, others… not so much. Regardless, it can be hard when you are not sure how you can support your friend or family member. It’s not your job to know exactly what is wrong and how to make them ‘better’. However, it is important that you are able to spot the signs and support them, as well as take care of yourself. This post does not just provide a list of things to do, but also talks about the seriousness of mental health problems as well as spotting the signs.

I just want to disclose, I am not a medical professional, nor do I want to upset or offend anyone. This is just based on research and personal experience. I am a huge advocate for supporting people with mental health problems and want to raise awareness. I do believe if you are suffering or someone you know is suffering, to seek professional help. But when you have friends, colleagues or family members who may be suffering, it is nice to have a little support yourself and know that you are not alone.

What is a mental health problem?

No two people will have the same mental health problem, or even the same symptoms. Symptoms are not always obvious to other people, but this does not mean there is not something wrong. Sometimes, if you are close to the person in question, you may well notice a change in behaviour or mood. 

Before getting into the common mental health problems, I feel it is important to discuss the fact there are huge misconceptions around mental health problems. It is important to point out that:

  1. We all have mental health and it is an integral part of our wellbeing
  2. Not all symptoms are the same 
  3. Not all mental health problems are visible or ‘obvious’ to other people
  4. Having a mental health problem is not a sign of weakness and should be treated as serious as any other illness

You may be aware of mental health by the terms ‘anxiety’, ‘depression’ and ‘bipolar’, for example. 

This is correct, but it goes much deeper than that and a lot of people think these ‘problems’ are not a big deal, but do not underestimate the power they hold over someone. That is why it is really important to be sensitive and supportive towards your friends, colleagues or family members who may be suffering with a mental health problem. 

Our mental health is a combination of thinking, communication, emotions, behaviour, self-esteem, emotional and physical wellbeing. Mental health problems are diagnosable health conditions, when there has been a significant change and decline in ones behaviour, functioning, thinking and emotions leading into, for example, sadness and distress. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) define mental health as:

‘a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’

Well known mental health problems  

Mental health problems are common, but that does not mean they should be underestimated. They are nothing to be ashamed of and the right kind of help can be sought if you, your friend or family member feel comfortable enough speaking up. That is why it is important to be there for someone, take them seriously and be sensitive.

Here are some common mental health problems you may be familiar with:

  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar Disorder 
  • Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) 
  • Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
  • Depression 
  • Loneliness
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Panic Attacks 
  • Paranoia 
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia 
  • Self-harm
  • Stress

For more information on mental health problems and what they mean, Mind have some really great resources on their website. 

Being sensitive to mental health problems 

You may well have heard of these mental health problems before, sometimes even in the wrong context. There are a lot of mental health terms that are thrown around, without understanding the seriousness of them. Just be careful when throwing around the terms above in a derogatory way, you never know who around you is truly suffering. 

I feel it is really important to raise that, if you have a an emotionally strong friend, or a friend who is not showing up to social events, to regularly check in with them. It’s hard when it feels like someone is not making an effort with you – but there may be an underlying issue. Relationships are two way, I completely get that. But when you are suffering from a mental health problem, like anxiety, for example, it is really hard to go to social events and find the energy to speak to people, be sociable or even just step outside the house. So just be weary of that and I urge you to check in with them. (Obviously this may not always be the case)

It is hard enough when you suffer from a mental health problem, without people making you feel like it is not serious or normal. It is common – more common than you may think. Throwing these terms around can make you less approachable in the eyes of your friend, family member or colleague who may be suffering. Try to be a little sensitive to those around you and take some time to understand mental health and the problems associated with it. You never know who you may be able to help. 

How to spot the signs

It is not always obvious if someone is suffering from a mental health problem. This is because everyone is different, some people are more open than others and some people may be too scared to speak up. Some people may not even know what is going on with themselves. 

There are some common changes in behaviour and ones emotional state that may help you spot something not quite right. You have to be open to seeing this. Some examples include:

  • Lack of interest in normal activities 
  • Lack of appetite 
  • Lower mood, irritable, tearful, nervous, emotional 
  • Difficulty trying to concentrate
  • Obsessive behaviour
  • Avoid situations
  • Distressed 
  • Self harm 

What you can do as a friend 

It is hard when you know someone is not okay, you alone will not be able to provide the solution. There are small things you can do, everyday, to support you and your friend. Just being there for someone can really make a difference. Listening with love and patience, being supportive and non-judgemental can be instrumental in helping your friend. The key thing here is to not let them feel like they are in this alone, they are not weak and that they have a friend. When your friend feels ready, going to a healthcare professional can be a real turning point for them. Here are a few things you can do to support someone with a mental health problem in the mean time:

  • Do not try and diagnose them yourself or guess how they are feeling.
  • Make an effort with them.
  • Make time for them, meet for a walk or a coffee. 
  • Listen when they speak to you. The more you listen, the more they may open up. 
  • Do not just take ‘I’m fine’ as an answer, ask them if they are okay and mean it. 
  • Talk about it, talk to people, involve people, ask how someone is doing and read their reaction, are they really “just fine?”
  • Regularly check in with people, even the “strong ones”.
  • Do not be judgemental.
  • Do not speak negatively about mental health problems, you may prevent someone from wanting to open up. 
  • Encourage others to seek support and let them know it is okay. 
  • If you feel comfortable sharing your struggles, then do. You’ll help someone understand and let them know they are not alone.
  • If you have children, talk to them and keep the communication lines open.
  • Become familiar with the signs and symptoms.
  • Try not to get mad at the people that do not go out or do not make much effort.
  • Try to be more sensitive towards your friend.
  • Encourage your friend to be active, go out for walks, practising yoga/meditation (or find what works well for you). Fresh air and nature can have a positive impact.
  • Have hope. Mental health problems are treatable and are not the end. 
  • Do not just tell someone to “man up” or to “get over themselves”.
  • Recognise when urgent action needs to be taken. 

Seeking support 

It is very important that your friend, family member or colleague seeks the professional help and support they need to get them through this tough time. It is also very important to get help yourself. There are many amazing organisations out there who provide support not only for the person suffering, but also the people around them. Remember, you can’t pour from an empty cup. It may well help you if you are able to talk to someone about what is going on and make sure you keep on top of your own mental health and look after yourself.

Mind are a charity that provides help and support to those who need it. They have some great resources on their site, as well as inspiring stories from the people they have helped.

Samaritans are an amazing, voluntary organisation that provide a free helpline to those in need. Their helplines are open 24 hours a day to provide a listening ear. Whether it’s yourself or another you are concerned about or if it is before, during or after a crisis, these volunteers are specially trained to help you in any situation. These volunteers truly are amazing!

How do you support your friends, family members or colleagues?

how to support a friend with a mental health problem
  • Sarah
    May 29, 2019

    This was a super helpful post. It can be really easy to slip into judgemental states about others when we don’t fully understand or appreciate the situations ourselves. My fave thing you said in this post was: “The key thing here is to not let them feel like they are in this alone, they are not weak and that they have a friend.” This is honestly so true and can really help people to feel a bit brighter and know they have a support circle. I hope this post gets the recognition it deserves and thank you for sharing xxx

    • ellieferguson
      June 7, 2019

      Thank you so so so much! I really appreciate you taking the time to read this and for your kind words <3 xxx

  • Laura
    June 4, 2019

    This is a good article, and I know so many people who should be here reading it!

    – Laura || afinnontheloose.com

    • ellieferguson
      June 7, 2019

      Thank you so much! 🙂

  • Chocoviv
    June 9, 2019

    Thank you for sharing this!

    • ellieferguson
      June 10, 2019

      Thank you for reading this 🙂

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