The nature of friendship entails a level of care for the other person that goes beyond that of strangers. A friend is someone whose presence you enjoy, whose personality meshes with yours, and therefore someone you want to protect. Oftentimes this means transcending the barriers of acquaintanceship when someone is in need, regardless of how difficult that may be. Here is how you can broach the subject of mental health issues and speak candidly when a friend needs help.
1. Provide Resources for Them to Turn To
No matter how much support you give, you won’t be able to assist your friend as much as a professional. Whether you’ve discussed the issue or not, try to share mental health resources when appropriate. If they have trouble opening up, you can still point them in the right direction for more qualified help. That small effort can have a great impact on their mental health in the long run.
You don’t have to do so directly — you can slip it into conversation as an option you’ve exercised yourself. Maybe you were feeling depressed and called a venting hotline or sought mental health treatment online for an antidepressant prescription. This can feel somewhat sly, but if you’re genuinely concerned and they won’t share, it’s a possible way to help them.
2. Create a Safe Setting for Conversation
Any setting that evokes comfort, privacy, and safety for your friend is ideal for this kind of discussion. Bring it up somewhere personally secure: their living room, an isolated outdoor space, or alongside other close friends. You want the setting to be directly conducive to these heart-to-heart-type conversations, so avoid distracting or loud areas. The most important aspect of it, however, is that your friend is truly comfortable there.
Setting is more than physical space; it also draws influence from context and past experience. Therefore, the safety of the physical space means nothing if you haven’t proven that it’s safe to talk to you. Establish a precedent for vulnerability between you by sharing personal experiences of your own. Otherwise, this discussion can easily feel like an interrogation and create distance instead of shrinking it.
3. Ensure That They Feel Heard
You’ve started this conversation to encourage your friend to speak their mind, so approach it with a level head. Project an air of non-judgment and actively listen to show them they are welcome to share freely. Let them know their feelings are valid, even if their response may not have been logical. This can be tough to understand. Your inner response to something is always OK; your outer response may not be.
Furthermore, help your friend with these issues by providing avenues for solutions rather than solutions themselves. What works for one person may not work for another, but a less-specific catalyst can lead to individualized solutions. For example, instead of recommending an online therapy website, share a list of resources from which they can choose. If they want to avoid certain approaches, help them either reframe them or find new ones that fit their needs.
4. Acknowledge the Discomfort
Ultimately, the most difficult part of this process is the discomfort associated with this likely new level of openness. But it’s not so bad once you break the ice, which you can do simply by acknowledging the discomfort itself. From there, the two of you can bond over that shared feeling and separate it from the discussion. Consider it an issue that needs to be tackled up front, because once you do, honesty is much more natural.
The best part of doing this is that once the topic is broached, it’s broached for good. A new level of trust is introduced that will persist as long as these topics continue to come up. You also provide the opportunity for both of you to express your discomfort. As a result, your respective boundaries will be communicated more effectively.
5. Respect Boundaries
Whatever goes on in the discussion between the two of you, pay specific attention to the boundaries your friend discloses. Maybe there is a certain subject they want to avoid or a level of personal detail beyond which they won’t share. Whatever the boundaries may be, make the utmost effort to respect them for the sake of trust. The same goes for you, even though you’re in the helping role. You don’t have to do anything you aren’t comfortable with.
There are still situations in which necessity can supersede respect of the other’s boundaries, but they tend toward the extreme. One may be if you believe your friend to be in danger, for instance, but they refuse to discuss it. The more extreme the problem is, the better it is to try more confrontational methods of communication like an intervention. Most of the time, however, this isn’t necessary and should be avoided.
There’s no doubt as to the amount of compassion that goes into supporting someone on this level. It’s not easy to create a situation in which they can feel safe from the get-go. But if you’re honest, patient, respectful, direct, and accessible, you may end up changing your friend’s life for the better.