How to Help a Friend Struggling with Mental Health

Written by Sierra Maniates, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate School

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The Graduate School and The National Association on Mental Health (NAMI) of Southwest Ohio will be holding a mental health related workshop In Our Own Voices on March 24, 2022 from 11:30-1pm virtually. This workshop provides a personal perspective of mental illness, as presenters with lived experience talk openly about what it's like to live with a mental health condition. Registration is now openIn preparation for this program, read on to learn what you can do to help friends, family members, or others in your life who may have mental health concerns. 

It's easy to feel helpless when someone you care about is experiencing mental health issues. This can be made more difficult if that person is struggling to recognize what is happening themselves. While it is not always possible (or advisable to try) to "fix" a friend or family members mental health on your own, there are many ways you can support someone who is having a difficult time with their mental health. In fact, a strong support system is a key factor in mental health recovery. Here are some steps you can take to support people in your life with mental health recovery. 

Notice Signs

You can read more about particular signs of mental illness in the previous article in this series, on Covid-19 and Graduate Student Mental Health. However, some signs may be harder to recognize from the outside. For instance, if you notice your friend has gotten worse at showing up to, or making plans, or is increasingly irritable when they're around you—it's easy to overlook this as a warning sign of mental health, and instead take it personally. While not all flakey friends are going through a mental health crisis, it's an important possibility to consider. If you observe any notable changes in emotional state, social engagement, personal-care, academic/career functioning, or other important areas of life, it's a good idea to check in before jumping to conclusions. 

Check your own biases and judgements 

Before reaching out to a friend or family member you think may be experiencing mental health issues, it's a good idea to reflect on any biases or judgements related to mental health you have that may negatively impact your loved-one. Because we live in a society that is very judgmental of those with mental health issues, it's almost impossible not to internalize some of that. Becoming aware of your own biases, educating yourself, and reflecting on if bias is coming into your interactions with others, is a way to mitigate the impact of harmful internalized ideas about mental health. Some common biases and assumptions about mental health include: feeling like someone should be able to just "snap out of" a mental health crisis, that someone is choosing symptoms of mental illness for attention, or that only certain groups of people experience certain types of mental health issues (such as the false idea that only women experience eating disorders). Make sure none of these biases are slipping into your interactions with someone going through mental health issues.  

Reach Out

When checking in with someone you think may be experiencing mental health issues, you want to ask open ended questions, point out what you have noticed, and affirm your care and support. For instance, you could tell someone "I've noticed that you haven't been showing up to class much, and are pretty quiet when you're there. I was wondering if there is anything going on in your life, or with your mental health that you'd like to talk about. I really care about you and would love to be able to support you if you're having a hard time." You want to avoid guilt tripping, or forcing them to talk. Sometimes people will not be ready to talk about what they are experiencing, but it can still be powerful for them to know they have a friend on their side if they want to. If someone doesn't want to talk, you can still give them other resources to reach out to. Sometimes someone may not want to talk about what is going on in their life, but you can still help support them. Simply continuing to be their friend can give them a sense of normalcy and community in a tough time

Connect to Resources

Especially if your friend is having serious mental health concerns, make sure you know your limits and how to connect your friend to others whose job it is to help them. Friends can offer support for, and distract from, mental health issues, but treatment and crisis intervention should be done by qualified professionals. There are many mental health related resources on and off campus. This list is a good place to start:

UC Reach Out App-The Reach Out App is a UC/Cincinnati specific mobile app that takes some of the work out of finding help. It has sections for helping yourself, helping a friend, and tailored local and national emergency contacts. If you're struggling with mental health issues, locating and contacting help can feel like an insurmountable task. This app makes it a little easier; You only need to click a few buttons to be connecting to an emergency, or non-emergency resource. If you don't see a resource on this list that fits your needs, check out the Reach App for a more comprehensive list.  

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)-CAPS provides a variety of mental health related services to the UC community. They have individual therapy, group therapy, and crisis support available for no or low cost to students. It is often possible to speak to a counselor same or next day in crisis situations.  CAPS also runs a 24/7 hotline for students who may be experiencing a mental health crisis after hours. CAPS is primarily set up for short term counseling, but can help students find long term therapy solutions if necessary. 

UC Graduate Student Peer Support Group-The Graduate Student Peer Support group is a group facilitated by graduate students, for graduate students. If you are experiencing isolation, or feel like you need people to be able to open up to about what is going on in your life, this (currently virtual) support group is a way to connect with people who can listen and support.   

Crisis Text Line-Sometimes calling a crisis line can seem daunting. The Crisis text line offers immediate, free, crisis and mental health support over text. While not a replacement for longer term support, crisis lines such as these can help you in a tough mental health moment when you need someone to talk to or help you get grounded. Text "HOME" to 741741 to be connected to one of their crisis counselors. 

NAMI-NAMI is the nation's largest grassroots mental health organization. Their website has a wealth of information for those experiencing mental health issues, friends and family members of those with mental health issues, and anyone who cares about accessible mental health care. NAMI also runs a crisis line (by phone and online chat), which is available on their website.  

Check in

Don't think of conversations about mental health as a "one-and-done" deal. Especially if your friend is forthcoming, checking in with them every once and awhile about how they are doing, rather than just once, will be more effective support. They may be worried you are tired of hearing about what they are going through, so opening up that conversation a few times can give them permission to ask for support. However, it's also important to know and maintain your own boundaries. It's okay to tell your friend "I'm not around to help today, but let's talk tomorrow." Or "I don't have the bandwidth right now, but let's connect you to someone who does." Establishing boundaries is a healthy part of any friendship or relationship and will let your friend know that you won't get burned out by supporting them.