My Friend Needs Some Mental Health Support
My Friend Needs Some Mental Health Support

Dear Tacit,

My friend needs some mental health help.  I think she needs to see a counsellor.  But how do I convince her to do this?

Signed: Just Wanting to Help

Dear Just Wanting to Help,

It’s kind of you to care so much for your friend.  If more people took the time to notice when others were struggling, and to truly reach out with empathy and caring, then the resistance most people feel to accessing the support they need would be greatly eliminated.  But to be fair, its not as easy as noticing a problem and connecting someone to a resource.  Being a real friend means allowing the person time to decide for themselves what they truly need and to decide when they are ready to access it. Your friend needs you to care, even if they aren’t quite ready to take the next step that you envision for them, yet.  And that can be the exhausting or frustrating part for those who are just trying to help.

There is a fine line to be walked between showing your friend why support would be a positive thing for them to try, and pushing so hard that it seems you are trying to control their life.  The old adage that says, “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink” is a wise one for this situation.  Your friend needs you to lead them to the water’s edge – maybe many times, from different directions.  But only when they feel safe enough to take that first sip will they be ready to do what they feel is needed.  Safety is the key.  Here are some ways to help your friend feel prepared enough to take that step towards help.

When you are talking to your friend about your concerns, make sure you have selected the right time/setting for the discussion.  Don’t rush the dialogue – or the time for absorption of what was shared, afterward, either.  Honour their privacy and their dignity whenever you are talking.  Be respectful in what you say as much as how you say it.  Highlight the facts only – talk about what you are seeing and what seems to be happening.  Leave room for the possibility that you have misunderstood something or are not seeing things the same way your friend is.  Explain the worries you have about your friend and do not make it about what others might think (that can feel like an attack).  Try to keep all of your own judgement out of the conversation.  Instead, ask your friend about his/her thoughts and feelings about what you are mentioning.  And truly listen – not to rebuff, but to understand where your friend is coming from.

Remember your goal –which is to help and support your friend.  Anything you say has to be clearly moving in the direction of that goal, from your friend’s perspective, not just your own.  Listen to the concerns your friend has about the support you are suggesting.  And find a solution – don’t disregard their worries as trivial or assume they are minimizing the seriousness of the situation.  Perhaps there is a better first step option.  Be as flexible as you would like your friend to be.  They do, after all, know their needs and fears better than you do.

If you have had your own positive experiences with some of what you think might help your friend, talk about that.  Sharing commonality chases away some of the unknowns for your friend.  But this means you have to be vulnerable.  You will need to talk about how the supports truly helped you change – and you will want to remember how uncomfortable that was for you, at the beginning of the process.  Offer help in the ways that your friend truly needs it.  Perhaps this means providing a drive, or being available after a support is accessed for a debrief.  Maybe it’s watching the kids for your friend, or making a casserole, so they don’t have to cook that day.  Maybe it’s information about how the support can be accessed.  Be available and of assistance in a way that truly matters.

People only change their patterns of behaviour when their current behaviour causes more discomfort for them than the potential change (or the idea of change) does.  Change is scary – it starts off from a place of discomfort and angst, naturally.  So, until you can help your friend rebalance what feels worse for them, understand that they will spend a lot of time thinking about reaching out for help before they actually do it.  That’s normal and healthy.  And it’s during this period that your friendship – your unconditional support and caring – is needed the most.

Take care!

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