It’s sad to say, but we live in a time when rates of depression and anxiety among teens and young adults are at a high, and continue to rise. In fact, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, 30 percent of teens say they’ve experienced symptoms of depression, and research from the National Institute of Mental Health also shows that about 6 million teens have an anxiety disorder.
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But keep in mind these numbers only account for two of the most common forms of mental illnesses out there today; there are others that aren’t as widely recognized or talked about.
Dealing with a mental illness yourself can be very challenging, to say the least. But it can also be tough to watch a really good friend struggle with their mental health. It can also have a way of affecting you maybe without you realizing it.
Unfortunately, given that our culture tends to avoid facing mental health issues, clinical psychologist Dr. Carla Marie Manly tells AwesomenessTV, “It can be scary and difficult for friends to reach out and help each other.”
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But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t or can’t. If you think (or know for sure) that your friend is struggling with their mental health, here are ways you can help:
1. Reach out to them privately.
“One of the most important things a friend can do is to first talk privately to the person who is struggling,” Manly says. “By letting the friend know that they are not alone, a sense of unity and support arises. This alone can be very helpful.”
So don’t make a big deal out of it to everyone in your friend group. Don’t even try to discuss or debate it (i.e. Sara has been looking down lately. Do you think she has depression?). Just let your friend know that you’re there for them for whatever they need.
2. Just listen.
“Usually people will try to ‘fix’ the problem by reassuring their friend by saying things like, ‘You have so many friends!’ or ‘Look how beautiful and smart you are,'” mental health therapist Emily Griffin tells AwesomenessTV. “But these things are not helpful and can make your friend actually feel like their emotions are unimportant.”
You may mean well by offering positive words of encouragement, but sometimes just being there and listening to your friend without offering up a piece of advice can be most helpful. So just sit and listen. If they ask for feedback, then you can take the opportunity to say what you feel is right.
According to licensed marriage and family therapist Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, “The key is to be present for their pain and model tolerance of it.”
3. Never minimize their problems.
Don’t assume you know what’s really going on inside your friend’s mind. Instead, watch the words you say around them. For example, if a friend is struggling with depression, saying things like “Just snap out of it,” or “I get sad sometimes, too,” shows that you don’t really understand what is going on with them or you aren’t taking their problem seriously.
“As a result, they will be less likely to open up to you in the future,” Dr. Sal Raichbach of the Ambrosia Treatment Center tells AwesomenessTV. That’s obviously the last thing you want to happen.
4. Don’t try to distract them by sharing stories of how awesome your life is.
If you offer up some help, but they politely decline with an “I don’t want to talk about it,” that’s fine. Leave them be. But of all the things you can do afterwards, don’t try to distract them by sharing how awesome and wonderful and happy your life is at the moment. You may mean well, but it might not have the desired effect.
“Be unselfish and put yourself in their shoes,” Keisha Blair, co-founder of Aspire Canada, tells AwesomenessTV. “Your friend might not be able to endure hearing about your vacation or social media escapades. Just steer clear of talking excessively about what’s working in your world.”
5. Offer up compassion.
Put a hand on their shoulder or send them a sweet text. If you see them post something on Instagram that implies sadness or loneliness, reach out to them.
“You never know when you’re the only voice of warmth that they may hear that day,” New York City-based therapist Katie Krimer tells AwesomenessTV.
Just be compassionate by doing little things that let your friend know they aren’t alone. “Being a teenager can feel very isolating. There’s often a feeling that no one knows the extent of your pain or suffering, or that you’re alone in this world with your challenges,” Krimer says. “Letting your friend know in your own little way that you’re supporting them can be a huge source of comfort.”
6. Try to discuss options with them.
If a friend is really struggling and trying to handle it all by themselves, try to discuss options for help with them. Maybe they don’t want to go to their parents yet, but there are other resources they can reach out to for help, like an anonymous helpline or a school counselor.
“Remind your friend that talking about it in a safe space will encourage healing,” Krimer says. “Getting the right help can make an individual feel a lot more hopeful and less burdened by a secret of suffering.”
7. Be as empathetic as you can, but be sure to maintain your boundaries.
It’s great that you want to help your friend deal with their struggles, but you also need to think of yourself. If you need to take a step back, that’s okay.
“Have your own life and do your own thing,” licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Vijayeta Sinh says. “Be helpful and supportive, but try not be be drawn into the role of being an emotional crutch for the other person.”
If you feel like you’re becoming their only source of support, Sinh suggests encouraging them to talk to a family member or a medical professional.
You can never really know what someone’s truly thinking or what they’re going through inside. Medical professionals may be able to help, but they can only do so much with what they’re given.
Sometimes, all someone really needs is a person to just be there for them without judgement. Because of that, friendship can really make a difference for someone who’s struggling. So above all, let your friend know you care.