We all try to be the best support system we can be for our friends. We help them through breakups, life transitions, and new challenges. You know them better than most. When it comes to supporting a friend through a mental health struggle, however, we are often at a loss. If you have never struggled with your own mental health, how can you fully understand what they are going through? If you have experienced a mental health issue, the pressure of caring for them may be triggering for you. Even bringing up a conversation about their mental well-being can be a challenge. With all these struggles and barriers how can you be a good friend? How are you supposed to help them?
Take a moment and breathe. Even by caring about their well-being makes you a good friend. You are not supposed to be perfect or know exactly what to do to help them. We have a few tips that will help you be supportive and get them the help they need, without sacrificing yourself.
1. Do Not Diagnose Them
We are all a little guilty of this. We see symptoms of a mental illness in someone and we give them a diagnosis. Mental illness is very complex and has several influencing factors. There is a reason that we have mental health professionals. Only they have the tools to properly diagnose someone. Try to refrain from giving a friend a diagnosis in your mind, when you do this it will heavily influence any conversation you have. Leave the diagnosing to the professionals, stick to being a support.
2. You Cannot “Fix” Them
We tend to think that our love and support can “fix” a close friend’s mental health issue. Unfortunately this is not that case. While our support is crucial to their healing process it is just one aspect. Just like we should leave the diagnosing to the professionals, we should also let them handle the treatment plan. This doesn’t mean you can’t give advice, just try and keep the advice focused on getting professional help.
The best way to think about it is if a friend were physically sick. If your friend had the flu you would be supportive and loving by bringing them soup and whatever else they need but you wouldn’t prescribe medication. Instead, you would advise them to seek medical help. Being available when your friend needs to talk about their mental health is like bringing them soup. Advising them to see a professional is like telling them to see a doctor when they have the flu.
3. You Come First. Always.
This is the toughest piece of advice to take but it is perhaps the most important. It is very easy to get caught up in a friends issues and feel guilty if you are not there for them 100% of the time. Being so involved, however, can take its toll on your own mental health. Taking on the role as a support person can place an immense amount of pressure on you and especially when you are the sole support person. The feeling that if you do not do a good job something bad will happen is terrifying. Learning to pull back a little when you feel overwhelmed is an important skill. If your friend is a true friend they will understand and be supportive of you like you have been of them.
Remember, you are not a doctor or a mental health professional. The best thing you can do for a friend is be supportive and recommend professional help. Don’t expect yourself to be able to solve their problems and don’t feel guilty about taking care of yourself.