How to Help: Do’s and Don’ts

Mental Illness is not rare. 1 in 5 adults live with a diagnosable mental health condition. And 50% of all Americans will be diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime. The odds are, you know someone, or you yourself, have a mental illness.

So, what do you do? Let’s say you have a friend named Sam. Sam is concerning you and you want to reach out to and help. How do you approach Sam? How do you approach the topic? You might be scared – not sure of their reaction or scared they may get mad at you. You may feel uneasy because you don’t think you know enough about mental health, or you don’t want to hurt their feelings. You may fear confrontation or an awkward conversation.

Here are some basic tips for approaching someone about their mental health.

Make sure you have genuine concern.

Understand that Sam had a lot going on – Sam wants to see that you care and can acknowledge what she is going through. Focus on the health aspects of Sam’s behaviors – so why the behavior is dangerous or unhealthy. Be persistent! Even if Sam gets mad at you – understand that anger is temporary. Sam is trying to protect herself and justify her actions – therefore its easy for her to get angry. In the long run, Sam will be grateful that you reached out and led her to get the needed help.

Learn to be aware and listen to Sam.

Understand that every person is different and respect those differences. Ask what Same needs to feel safe or comfortable – and make sure you give her that. It is important to remain flexible. Sam needs to be treated well by other people to realize that she needs to treat herself in the same manner.

Understand that it’s easy for Sam to get defensive.

Mental illness feels like it’s a part of you and out of your control. It’s easy to lie to yourself in this situation and rationalize your behaviors. Refrain from pushing your thoughts and assumptions onto Sam. Rationalizing her situation or feelings can come across as condescending and invalidate her feelings. You telling Sam that her feelings are wrong or don’t make sense makes it feel worse – this is going to close Sam off, and reaffirm to herself that something is wrong with her.

Don’t punish or shame.

When you approach Sam, know that she knows what she is doing is wrong – and that she will feel guilty and weak for the behavior. Therefore, don’t punish or shame her. She already knows its not the right thing to do. Calling Sam dramatic or seeking attention is only going to feed the negative thoughts she already feels.

Give them a safe space to talk.

Sam will open up when you give her the space to talk. We don’t want Sam to reach the point of crisis or a mental breakdown. Once she feels it’s a safe place to discuss her feelings, she will come to you. Be clear to Sam you care and are there for her – wherever she may be in her journey.

Written by:

Sarah Waldrop is the Southeast Regional Coordinator at the Mental Health Association of East Tennessee. Sarah’s passionate about working at MHAET because she wants to promote and educate on the importance of mental health and early intervention. Sarah most enjoys building a strong community network, and hearing the stories from students that she gets to teach. She lives in Chattanooga with her fiancé, Nate, and their two dogs, Brodie and Bella. Sarah practices self-care daily through fitness and quality time spent outdoors with her family.

With Contributions by:

My name is Angelica, and I suffer from mental illness (so does my mom and brother). Mental Illness having played such a big role in my life, I have become pretty good at identifying issues and working hard at solving them. Turns out I love sharing my tips and tricks on how to manage the messiness of mental health. Working with the Mental Health Association has been a dream come true. I hope my insights can help you find happiness and healthiness. I can’t think of a better way to put my Bachelor of Social Work to good use.

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