How to Help a Friend Who’s Struggling with Their Mental HealthReading Time: 7 minutes
More young adults than ever before are talking openly about mental health. Discussions are happening in person and on social media, at home and in the workplace. “Young people are advocating for their needs and for the needs of others who are suffering,” says Newport Executive Director Leigh McInnis, LPC. “They’re speaking their feelings out loud, telling others that’s it’s okay to feel these feelings, and advocating to make space for them.”
But sometimes reminding a friend who’s struggling that “it’s okay to not be okay” isn’t enough. It isn’t easy to know how to help a friend with depression, anxiety, a substance abuse disorder, or another mental health concern—or what to do if you’re worried about a friend who seems to be having a hard time but hasn’t opened up to you about it.
- Starting an open conversation is the first step in how to help a friend with anxiety or depression.
- When speaking with an anxious or depressed friend, be sure to listen more than you talk.
- Providing resources is one way to support a friend with mental health issues.
- Be sure to protect your own well-being and set boundaries if needed.
How to Tell Someone You’re Worried They Might Be Depressed or Anxious
First, find the right time and place to have a private discussion that won’t be rushed. Then share your concerns with compassion and without judgment. One of the most important aspects of how to help a friend is the attitude you bring to the initial conversation.
You might mention examples of your friend’s behavior that have you worried, such as their withdrawal from social activities, seeming sad or negative most of the time, signs of self-harm, or excessive use of drugs or alcohol. Once you’ve expressed your concerns, let your friend talk.
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What to Say to a Friend Who Is Struggling Mentally
It’s hard to know what to say to someone in emotional crisis that will help and not hurt. Here a few tips for how to help someone who is struggling.
- Practice active listening—focus fully on what they’re saying rather than formulating your next response while they’re talking.
- Validate their emotions without belittling or minimizing them; you might use a phrase like “That sounds really hard.”
- Ask open-ended questions like “Can you tell me more about how you’ve been feeling?”
- Resist the temptation to suggest a diagnosis or offer advice.
- Assure your friend that you care about them and you’re there for them.
- Find out if there’s anything they would like you to do, such as helping them to access professional support or doing household chores they’re not able to do right now.
- Don’t pressure them to share more information than they willingly offer.
If you have experienced a similar struggle, it’s okay to talk a little bit about what you went through, as a way to show empathy and share hope for the future. But be careful not to turn the conversation into a monologue about your own experience.
How Do You Comfort Someone Having a Breakdown?
When a friend is having a breakdown or a panic attacks, the most important thing you can do is simply be present and show your caring and support. Let them know you’re there for them, and ask them if there’s anything you can do to help right now. As far as what not to say to someone having a mental breakdown, don’t tell them to “suck it up,” that they’re problems aren’t really that bad, that they’re overreacting, or to just “chill out.”
While your friend is actively struggling in a moment of crisis, simply listening and expressing how much you care about them may be all you can do. However, when they are calmer, you may be able to gently suggest the possibility of accessing mental health services, such as a local or online therapist, or a support group where people come together to talk openly about mental health problems. If you have the time to do so, you can offer to help research options that might be a good fit.
How to Help a Friend with Substance Abuse Issues
One of the most common worries young adults have is, “Is my friend an addict?” But the real question to ask is whether a friend is struggling with their mental health. It’s important for a concerned friend to understand that substance abuse is a symptom of an underlying mental health issue, such as trauma, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or another mental health issue.
- Make sure that your friend is sober when you share your concerns.
- Include specific examples of their behavior that is concerning you.
- Let them know how these behaviors are affecting your relationship.
- Come prepared with information about local treatment options or support groups.
- Continue to express how much you care about your friend and how much you want them to get help.
Figuring out how to help a friend with addiction issues can be very difficult, particularly if they are in denial about their substance abuse or alcohol abuse. Remember to tap into compassion and to think about the larger issues your friend is going through that may be manifesting as substance abuse. Blaming or shaming them for their behavior is not how to help a friend. And if they continue to resist the ideas that they need support, let the conversation go, at least for now. It might have planted a seed that they will think about and act on later.
What a Concerned Friend Can Do
Once you’ve approached a friend to express your concerns about their potential mental health problems, what’s the next step to take? If they’ve asked you for concrete support, such as researching therapy options or having a daily check-in call or text, be sure to follow up on that right away.
But what if you left the conversation without any actions to take? If that’s the case, then the best approach for how to help a friend with depression, anxiety, social anxiety, or other mental health issues is to keep reaching out. Invite them to take a walk, come to a gathering, or go out for coffee—and don’t be deterred if they say no more often than not. Keep asking, and let them know how much you value them and their company.
When you do get together, ask questions and listen—but also share what’s new in your life. Just because you’re worried about a friend doesn’t mean that every conversation should focus on what they’re going through. That won’t be helpful to them or to you. Be open about your own challenges, so they know that they’re not alone in dealing with hard things.
How Far Should You Go to Help a Friend with Depression, Anxiety, or a Substance Use Disorder?
No matter how much you care about your friend, there is only so much you can do. It’s not healthy for either person if the concerned friend makes themselves constantly available around the clock for calls or crises. Moreover, if the friendship has become toxic, don’t keep it going just because you’re afraid something bad will happen if you’re not there. And don’t expose yourself to potential danger in an attempt to keep a friend safe.
If you’re the only person your friend has opened up to about their struggles, encourage them to talk to other friends or family members. If you see that they’re getting worse and not seeking help or confiding in others, you might need to tell someone else what’s going on—a mutual friend, someone in your friend’s family, a shared mentor, etc. Although your friend may be angry that you shared this information, eventually they will understand why you made that choice, and may even be grateful that you did.
Ultimately, if your friend is over 18, it is their decision whether or not to seek help. As painful as it may be to witness their struggle, all you can do is continue to offer your support and caring.
Take Care of Yourself First
When considering how to help a friend, don’t forget that taking care of yourself comes first. It’s stressful to be worried about a friend, especially if you feel helpless or if they have shut you out, so you need to take care of yourself as well as trying to help them. “Young adults need to love and care for themselves in order to care for others,” Leigh says.
Moreover, attending to your own mental and physical health is a way to model positive behavior for your friend who is struggling. You can even invite them to join you in this effort if you wish: You could both go to a weekly yoga class or you could join a support group together. But don’t let your self-care revolve around their needs; prioritize your schedule and your own well-being by setting boundaries as needed.
What to Do in a Mental Health Emergency
If you believe a friend is in immediate danger due to mental health or substance abuse issues, take action to make sure they are safe.
- Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24-hour crisis center through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
- Text MHA to 741741 to connect with a trained Crisis Counselor from the Crisis Text Line.
- Call 911 or take them to the nearest emergency room.
Mental Health America also provides free, confidential “warmlines” that you or a friend can call if you need support but there is no immediate danger. Find a warmline at mhanational.org/warmlines.
Treatment for Depression, Anxiety, and Substance Abuse at Newport Institute
At Newport Institute, our mission is to help young adults build self-worth, authentic connections with others, and a sense of purpose and hope. We address the trauma and attachment wounds underlying mental health issues like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other co-occurring disorders. Our team of clinicians, medical experts, and experiential therapists guide young adults to navigate the internal and external challenges they face during this pivotal stage of life.
Frequently Asked Questions
What do you say to a friend who is struggling mentally?
Resist the temptation to suggest a diagnosis or offer advice. Instead, assure your friend that you care about them and you’re there for them. Find out if there’s anything they would like you to do, such as helping them to access professional support.
How do you check in on a struggling friend?
Check in by text, a phone call, or an invitation to spend time together. Don’t stop checking in even if your friend doesn’t answer consistently. Your caring and concern may be helping them more than you know. Hearing from a friend when you’re struggling can make all the difference.
What advice can you give someone who is depressed?
It’s more important to listen and offer support to a depressed friend rather than giving advice. But you can ask whether your friend would be interested in information about support groups or local therapists and treatment centers. And you can invite your friend to do things with you that might help them feel better, like take a walk or go to a yoga class.
How do you comfort someone having a breakdown?
When a friend is struggling, the most important thing you can do is simply be present and show your caring and support. You might also gently suggest that accessing mental health services could be helpful, and volunteer to help them research options.