When a friend, family member, or colleague is be struggling with mental health issues, they may be feeling alone. Support from a friend like you is even more important.
A mental-health ally is someone who actively provides support—creating a pathway to safety for those who are struggling with mental health issues. Here’s some expert advice for how to be part of the solution for different people in your life.
Show up as curious and compassionate, says Dr. Monica O’Neal, a clinical psychologist and relationship expert. If your friend seems distant and you suspect mental health issues are at play, let them know you’re available if they want to talk. Offer to help with whatever they need, be it picking up groceries or making calls. If they are open to therapy, you might share the names of counselors you know and trust.
With colleagues, adopt a more subtle approach, says Dr. Rachel Conrad, director of young adult mental health in the Department of Psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Invite them to lunch or for coffee walks to help break up the day. Ask questions in a non-accusatory way. Use statements like, “I get the sense that you might’ve been having a tough go at it recently,” says O’Neal. Be an advocate within your workplace for a health-care plan that provides adequate mental health benefits.
It can be complicated to offer help when family dynamics, historical roles, and cultural background are at play. “Often, non-judgmental listening is both the most difficult and most valuable thing a family member can offer,” says Conrad. Use supportive statements that show you’re open and caring, such as, “Anyone would be struggling in your circumstances,” or “I wish that I could take this pain away,” and “I want to be helpful to you,” to show that you are there for them no matter what.
“Partners may interpret low energy, loss of interest, or emotional absence as a reflection of lackluster feelings toward the relationship,” but that’s not always the case, says Conrad. Instead, ask your partner to be open about their symptoms—even if they are uncomfortable ones. Ask questions in a loving and compassionate way. One suggestion is simply saying “I’m noticing this,” in a non-judgmental way. And it helps to establish a routine to regularly check in with each other open and honestly about mental health issues, says Conrad.
If anyone in your life mentions dying or wishing that they weren’t alive, demonstrates sudden changes in personality, sleep or behavior, or provides reason to suspect they might harm themselves or someone else, seek professional help immediately. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.