You might be surprised to learn that after your partner, your true-blue mates, are the next best thing when it comes to bringing you happiness in life. Health wise, research has found people who connect with friends, produce less of the stress hormone cortisol, which can lead to symptoms of anxiety – a condition that will affect one in seven people at some stage in their life.
That’s why finding out your mate is not OK, can leave you lost for words. Sometimes we fear that if we don’t respond exactly the right way, we may make the condition a whole lot worse or that we may do something to upset them further.
What should you say? What shouldn’t you say? What if they are really struggling to cope? How do you recommend professional help without seeming judgemental? What if they are moody, withdrawn, and sad? How can you take care of them while still taking care of yourself?
Here we share six tips for how you can show up as a great friend when one of your mates says “I’m not ok”
1. Listen without judgement
If you haven’t experienced a mental health condition yourself, it can be hard to understand how someone who looks perfectly fine, is not well at all. Why can’t they just be more positive? Why can’t they get out of bed? Why can’t they eat well, exercise and get some sleep – after all they are the basics? Isn’t it mind over matter?
When we are faced with a mental health issue, the chemistry in our brain isn’t producing enough of the happy hormones that enable us to complete daily tasks with ease. Even routine acts of daily living such as going to the shops can seem overwhelming and the choice to ‘snap out of it’ just isn’t there. The fact they are opening up to you is a privilege so it’s best to simply listen without judgement.
Tip: Show interest and have an open mind – Actively listen with an open mind and allow them the space to simply share what’s on their mind. Sometimes a problem shared is a problem halved and just having a listening ear can be enough for them to feel supported.
2. Be present
As they are sharing their story, try and be truly present. Listen actively, ask open questions, and make it known you are there to listen. Talking over the top of them, checking your phone or planning your exit is doing your friend a disservice. This is one time they need your undivided attention.
When we feel heard, we instantly feel supported, and this will be the same for your friend. They aren’t necessarily looking for solutions, they are looking for a shoulder so make sure yours is there when needed.
Tip: Let them know you are there for them – Sometimes letting them know you are sorry to hear they haven’t been having the easiest time, and that you are there for whatever they need will be a big help.
3. Ask how you can help
When we are struggling with our mental health, it can present in many different forms with different levels of intensity which range from person to person. While some people seem perfectly fine on the outside, they may be tangled up inside. Others might be visibly distressed and struggle to just get out of bed. Try and work out where your mate is sitting and ask how you can help.
Tip: From shopping to finding support – everyone’s idea of support may be different. It might simply be a case of hanging out with your mate a little more often, it could be helping with daily chores or helping find professional support. Whatever it is, let them know you’ll take care of it.
4. Keep them included and don’t take it personally
Often when our mates are experiencing a mentally challenging time, they can feel unworthy, and socialising can seem overwhelming. This puts you in a difficult situation – should you ask them to events only to have them decline? Or should you not ask them and hope they don’t feel excluded?
The best thing to do is to let your mate know how much you would love them to hang out with you, extend the invitation and make it clear that you don’t want them to feel obligated. That way they can see your efforts to include them as an act of genuine care.
Tip: Keep the invites coming without the pressure - Remember, your mate’s current state is probably only temporary, so have patience. Keep the invites coming so they know and feel included, but without putting pressure for them to attend if they don’t feel ready just yet.
5. Stay optimistic and headstrong
Being a support person can take its toll on you also. Whether it be emotional phone calls, guilt trips, demanding texts, unreasonable requests - sometimes those who are struggling can overstep the friendship boundaries. They say that mental illness can have a ripple effect on the people it surrounds so it is important to take care of yourself too.
Tip: Self-care and regular check-ins – Be mindful of your own boundaries, check-in with yourself regularly. Do things you enjoy and maintain your mental and physical wellbeing. Find a sensitive way to recommend some professional help to your mate and tap into some of the mental health support groups. If necessary, seek professional help for yourself at this time to ensure you can be there for yourself and your friend.
6. Watch for signs of further decline
While each mental illness comes with its own set of symptoms, there are some general signs you can keep an eye on, which might point to a further decline and need for more help.
If you notice a friend is becoming more and more withdrawn or acting out of character by being hostile, disconnected or extremely happy, sad, or violent, professional help is order. In Australia, there are many online support services for people struggling with mental health. From Lifeline Australia, Beyond Blue, Head to Health and MensLine Australia, these, and many more provide basic information on symptoms and treatments, as well as links to professional medical support and services.
- Having a friend around when going through a mental illness can only benefit and help a mate’s recovery process.
- Be present, available and listen to your mate without judgment by keeping an open mind and trying to put yourself in his shoes.
- Ask how you can be of help either by doing practical jobs and chores or by simply popping by for a cuppa.
- Keep an eye out for any signs of decline and need for professional help by recognising behaviours that are out of character for them.
- Keep your mate included by inviting them to social gatherings and make sure you stay optimistic and headstrong.
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Need mental wellbeing support?
If this article has triggered mental health concerns for you or someone you know, there are many online support services available. Contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or talk to your GP or health professional.