Part of friendship is listening and offering support, but when friends are struggling with mental health challenges, many people are unsure of what to do. Seeing a friend in pain is hard. Seeing a friend in pain that we might not be able to stop or offer answers to can be even more challenging. We might feel pressure to find solutions or feel uncomfortable because we don’t know the answers. This can cause us to avoid conversations with a friend who needs support and can cause our friends who need support to keep things to themselves.
But just like with any other issue, sharing that you are struggling is not asking for someone to fix your struggle. When you are having a hard time with a class or a relationship, you do not think your friend who you are venting to will fix the problem for you. Often, you just need to feel heard and to get things off your chest. When someone is struggling with their mental health, it is important to remember that they may just be looking for the same thing.
If your friend tells you they are having a difficult time, approach the conversation with curiosity and compassion, just as you would with any other issue they might bring up. Even if you can’t relate to the experience or may be nervous about saying the wrong thing, asking them for their needs is good starting point. Instead of jumping in with an answer or feeling like you must suddenly figure out all the next steps, you can simply ask, “Would you like me to just listen or do you want to talk through resources or solutions?” They might be relieved to have the opportunity to just talk through what is happening for them.
If they want extra support and you feel you don’t know what to do, you can offer to sit by your friend while you research options and reach out to others in your community, like people with lived experience or mental health professionals, who can provide options for next steps when necessary.
By creating relationships where our friends feel like they can show up however they are and be heard, we make it easier for people to be honest about their experiences and increase the likelihood that they will reach out when they need us. Feeling like we must fix what our friends share can keep us from doing the most important thing, which is often just being there.
Written by Kelly Davis, Director of Peer Advocacy, Supports, and Services at Mental Health America.