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How to be a Mental Health Supporter to Your Friend

How to be a Mental Health Supporter to Your Friend

“I’m depressed”, “I need help”. How do you react when a friend of yours approaches you, hoping to seek help and comfort? In a society that unfortunately stigmatises mental health issues, many of us are most likely incapable of tackling such situations appropriately. Sadly, people would feel a sense of awkwardness, then attempt to shrug it off by changing the topic. Worse still, some may distance themselves from their troubled peers – being unsure as to how they can help and would rather stay away. To date, mental health issues are considered taboo, and many would prefer to avoid talking about it. 

Unsurprisingly, it has come to light in recent times that mental health is ranked second in a study conducted on concerns among Singaporean youths, amid others such as employment opportunities. At the fundamental level, we’ll need to be more informed on how we can assist those around us to seek help from mental health professionals when things get hard, and how we can better support them to cope with their condition. The reason behind this is that many would favour talking to their friends before all else instead of consulting a counsellor or a therapist. Besides the stigma of having to seek therapy, the trust and bond between friends nudges them to find comfort in their peers, allowing them to express themselves more easily. To a certain extent, we are at the frontline and act as the safety net for our troubled friends, thus exponentially increasing the need for us to be more mindful of how we respond and act. 

What are some good steps to take if you know that your friend needs help? The most helpful thing you can do if they choose to open up to you is to simply listen. When someone approaches you to tell you their problems, it is extremely important that you lend them a listening ear and to hear them out. This will mean the world to them, for it probably took them quite some time to gather the courage to speak up. Set aside some time to provide an open and non-judgemental space for them to be fully transparent with you. It is vital that any distractions are limited, so that they are assured they have your full attention. Revealing their deepest, private thoughts to someone else is never easy, and when they choose to, it will be greatly beneficial in knowing that the other party truly cares for them. 

With that said, let your friend take the lead in the conversation. Let them take control over what they’re willing to share, and what they’re not willing to. We have to understand that ultimately, they have the right to guard their personal feelings and privacy, and we should never, under any circumstance, force them to reveal matters that they aren’t ready to talk about. Don’t put unnecessary pressure on them and let them talk at their preferred pace. You could very well be the first person that they have been able to open up to, and it is crucial that you do not break the trust and confidence they have in you.

Oftentimes, people may tend to get overly-absorbed in the conversation, and take on the role of a “therapist”. Unknowingly, they may start to second guess or make assumptions as to what is wrong, and subsequently jump into conclusions with a possible diagnosis or solution. However, hold your horses – bear in mind that you are neither a trained therapist nor a psychologist. Don’t label them with what you think is going on. Focus on providing them with a reliable listening ear or a shoulder to cry on instead.  

Providing words of comfort may seem easy enough – but there are pitfalls in which we often walk into unintentionally. “Things will be better tomorrow”, “I felt the same when I…” Such words are rarely made out of malice, but rather because it is easier to fall back on such overused expressions whenever we struggle to find the right words. However, this could backfire, as the underlying tone may come off as dismissive, unhelpful or even judgemental. Instead, validate their feelings and thoughts. Assure them that you will be there whenever they need someone to talk to, and that it is okay for them to feel what they feel. Moreover, avoid making comparisons between their experiences and yours. Every individual’s journey is personal and unique to them – try to make the conversation less about you and give them a space to express themselves freely. 

Focus on how your friend is coping as the conversation carries on, and be alert to any red flags. If it becomes obvious that your friend needs help dealing with emotional issues or a mental health problem,  talk to them about receiving proper treatment from a mental health professional. It may be tough to start such a conversation as a person’s culture, family background and experiences may influence their perception about seeking help, which makes such a topic about therapy an intense and personal one. Initially, you may expect some resistance, as they might feel a sense of shame and failure. Remember to reassure them that receiving therapy is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sensible way to deal with their troubles. If possible, simple gestures like offering to accompany them to their first session can also be comforting, for they will be less likely to feel abandoned. 

Being patient with them is key, even if your friend is rejecting professional help. Your conversation may have started getting them to consider it, even if it doesn’t mean seeking help immediately. Try to see things from your friend’s perspective and just be there to support and encourage them. Doing this will help facilitate on-going deep and meaningful conversations, and can make your friend more receptive to reaching out to you and for professional help in the future when they are ready. 

 


References:

Mental health, job opportunities among issues raised by youths in engagement sessions (Accessed on 13/06/2020)

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