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How to Support a Friend Who Might Have a Mental Health Challenge

Written Student Life Network

Let’s move child and youth mental health forward together.

How can you support a friend who might have a mental health challenge? What are some signs that they might need support? What are some things you can do? Where can you find extra sources of support so that you don’t get overwhelmed? As a young person, it can be hard to find useful answers to these questions. The following resource from CAMH has been developed by youth for youth, to offer some answers that might work for you. If you’re interested in learning more, keep reading.

What can mental health challenges look like? For most of us, there are times when we might feel “off”—sad, worried, guilty, scared, or suspicious, for example. These emotions can happen to anyone at times. But these kinds of feelings can become a problem if they last too long or get in the way of our daily lives. Mental health challenges can affect anyone. They may change how we feel, think and act. They may even affect our physical well-being. These signs may be visible to other people (like changes in behaviour) or invisible (like thoughts and feelings).

How can I support others? There are three important parts to supporting a friend with a mental health challenge: 

  1. Reach Out
  2. Be Supportive
  3. Get Help From Others

Let’s explore each of them:

1. Reach Out

 

If you notice that a friend might need support, a first step may be reaching out to them to start a conversation. If you feel comfortable, connect with your friend to ask how they’re doing. Try to be specific about what you’ve noticed that’s making you concerned.

You could say:

“You seem distant lately. How are you doing? Is there anything I can do to help?”

or

“It looked like you were having some trouble yesterday. Is there something going on? Do you want to talk about?”

Even if your friend doesn’t want to talk, knowing that you care can help them feel less alone.

2. Be Supportive

Listen closely and carefully to what your friend has to say. If your friend shares what is happening, you can validate their experience by showing you understand how difficult things are for them.

You could say:

“I’m sorry, that really sucks. Do you want to talk about it?”

or

“That sounds like a lot to deal with.”

Try to avoid comments that might sound as though you think that your friend can control how they think or feel, or that their experience isn’t such a big deal.

Don’t say:

“Everyone feels this way sometimes.” 

or

“I’ve felt like this before—you’ll get over it soon enough.” 

If you’ve had a similar experience that you are comfortable sharing, it might help your friend to feel less alone. You may also be able to share healthy ways that you have coped with these challenges and positive strategies that have worked for you.

If you can, continue to be there for your friend and spend time together like you normally would. Try to keep most of your conversations on topics that you usually talk about, and not always about their mental health. Your friend is still the same person you knew before—people don’t want to be defined by their mental health challenges. After your friend has shared their experience, you can tell them that you are glad they told you about it and offer to keep the conversation going.

You could say:

“I’m glad you talked to me. Do you want to meet tomorrow? We can just hang out or we can talk more—or maybe there’s some other way I can help.”

or

“Thanks for telling me this has been going on. If you ever want to talk more, let me know.”

3. Get Help From Others

The kind of help that your friend may need will depend on how they are feeling, and what types of support they are comfortable receiving. It is usually a good idea to suggest that your friend also talks to someone else about their concerns. (It means you’re not the only person who is looking out for them.) If your friend is uncomfortable reaching out like this, you can offer to be there with them or connect with someone else for them. Start by showing your friend that you care about them.

You could say:

“It sounds like things might be getting more serious for you lately. I’m worried about you.”

or

“I haven’t seen you a lot lately. I’m worried that something is going on.”

Then you may suggest some possible sources of help:

“Have you talked to anyone else about getting some help? / Do you want to talk to someone for more support?”

or

“Maybe you could reach out to _____ again? / Or try speaking with ______? Do any of those options seem doable for you?”

Maybe this isn’t an option your friend is ready for now but opening this conversation can show that you are there if they want to talk more. In this situation, you should definitely reach out to someone who can help you figure out what to do next or can reach out to your friend directly. If your friend’s behaviours start to become more alarming, they may need more immediate support. Examples might be big changes in their mood, a major change in their regular activities, increased use of alcohol or other drugs, or talking about suicide or self-harm.

If your friend is talking about self-harm or suicide and is describing ways to do it, they need help now. You may be able to get your friend to a source of help if they agree to go with you, and if you are comfortable doing this. Even if they don’t agree, it is still important to respond with their safety in mind.

You could say:

“I’m really worried about your safety right now. I think we should go to the emergency department.”

or

“Can we call someone to let them know what is happening, like a family member? Maybe they can come with us-or maybe you’d prefer that they go to the hospital with you instead?”

If your friend doesn’t want you to call anyone and is unwilling or unable to go to the emergency department, you can offer to call 911 with them. If you are concerned about their safety and they refuse any help from you or someone else, you should call 911.


CAMH is a world leader in child and youth mental health care and research. Your support of T.J.’s Tour de Bleu ride and CAMH will improve the lives of children, youth and families affected by mental illness. Tour de Bleu will drive CAMH’s innovative work to the next level, developing new and promising real-world mental health solutions that help young people lead happy, healthy lives. Every dollar raised by riders and corporate sponsors will be matched by the Peter Gilgan Foundation.

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Let’s move child and youth mental health forward together.

*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.