Mental health issues affect all corners of society. You no doubt know a family member, friend or colleague who has suffered from a mental health condition.
In recent years, there is less stigma around mental illness. People are educating themselves about different mental health issues and learning how to support those around them. You don’t need to be an expert in mental health issues to provide support.
What Are Mental Illnesses?
Mental illness affects how a person feels, thinks and behaves. There are many mental health conditions and disorders but the most common are anxiety and depressive disorders. Almost half (45%) of all Australians will experience a mental illness during their life.
Most mental health conditions are treatable. Some people need the support of a friend or family member to feel better while others need professional help. They can start with their GP and, if required, see a specialist.
How Much Do I Need to Know About Mental Health to Help?
If you’re worried about a friend or family member’s mental health, you don’t need to be an expert. You aren’t there to diagnose an illness but you’re there to offer support. Some people benefit from talking to a friend and making a change that improves their mental wellbeing. Others need the support of a friend to help them seek professional help.
The Importance of Looking After Mental Health
Poor mental health has a risk of developing into ongoing mental illness and physical health problems. Research has linked depression and stress to chronic conditions, premature death, coronary heart disease, diabetes, disability and premature death. There is a two-way relationship between physical health and mental wellbeing.
How to Recognise the Signs
A person experiencing mental health issues may have changed their behaviour in a way that makes you question if they’re struggling. It may be just a gut instinct that something isn’t right.
Some signs of changed behaviour include:
- Moodiness or emotional outbursts
- Poor self-esteem
- Acting withdrawn
- Lack of interest in activities they once enjoyed
- Unable to concentrate
- Lack of interest in their appearance and personal hygiene
- Showing concern or negativity for the future
Mental health issues often arise after a significant life event. A person experiencing one or more of the following may have an increased risk of a mental health issue.
- Physical health problems/illness
- Relationship problems
- Death of a relative or friend
- Work or life stress
- Financial difficulties
How to Ask Someone If They Need Help
Once you’ve recognised a sign or you have a gut instinct that a friend is struggling, ask if they need help. Mental health and illness should be taken seriously. No one expects you have a solution that will turn their life around. Most people will appreciate someone looking out for their welfare and being willing to listen.
Starting the Conversation
Start by asking open questions such as “How are you going?” or “What's been going on?” to guide the conversation. You can then tell them why you’re concerned or prompt them by saying “I haven’t seen you out much” or “You seem very quiet lately”.
If they say they’re fine or don’t want to talk, don’t force the issue. Tell them you’re worried about them and you’ll be there if they ever want to talk.
How to Listen
If your friend opens up, don’t interrupt them. Acknowledge that things are tough for them. Don’t rush the conversation and encourage them to explain by asking questions such as ‘How are you feeling about that?’ and ‘How long have you felt like this?’. It’s also ok to stay quiet and just listen to them.
Taking Action After the Talk
If your friend has been struggling and has opened up to you about their problems, encourage them to see a health professional. You can offer to help them find the right person to talk to. Be positive about professionals and offer to catch up before or after the appointment to make them feel at ease.
Otherwise, ask if there is something they can do that they find enjoyable and relaxing. Ask what you can do to help support them.
It’s important to follow up on your friend. In a week or two, call or visit them in person to see how they are going. Say you’ve been thinking of them and ask if they’ve found a way to manage their situation. Don’t be negative if nothing has changed since your first conversation. Be open to listening again, this may be what they value the most. Continue to stay in touch with your friend. Knowing someone is thinking about them and taking the time to check in with them can be comforting.
Remember, if your friend has been feeling really low or is at crisis point, contact a professional.
Not Sure If You Can Ask ‘Are You OK?’
Not everyone can ask another person if they are ok. You may have your own problems or can’t help. Some people aren’t great listeners or just don’t feel comfortable. Rather than do nothing, you could speak to a mutual friend or family member about your concerns for your friend. Request that they ask the question.
It’s normal to want to help but you might be lacking the confidence to ask the question. If you think a little practice will give you the confidence you need, try a role-playing resource. Available through Google Assistance enabled devices such as a smartphone or Google Home, you can access it by saying ‘Hey Google talk to RU OK Mate’. You use your voice to role-play scenarios and get tips on how, when and where to ask the question.
Who Could Need Your Help?
There is no right or wrong person to ask “are you OK?” The support you can offer to a family member, friend or colleague is extremely valuable.
Relatives have the advantage of knowing a person well. It may be one of your siblings, children or your partner. You know their usual behaviour, demeanour, and what they enjoy doing.
Close relatives are often the first to recognise a change in someone. If you have noticed a change in a relative, start the conversation to find out how they’re going.
Friends are often the first to notice when something is not quite right. Their usual happy personality while socialising may have changed or they may turn down offers to catch up. They might talk about their future negatively where they were once positive. Show how much you care about them and your friendship and ask if they are ok. Even if they insist that everything is fine, tell them how much they mean to you.
You spend more time with your work colleagues than you do with your partner and family. So you might be the best person to recognise a change in their mood or behaviour. Some people live on their own and might not have someone to talk to when they get home.
Asking a colleague if everything is ok at work and in their personal life could really help. Even if you know your colleague has a partner or is quite social, don’t just assume they have noticed the same signs you have. The problem might be work-related and not as obvious when they're home.
Don’t Forget to Look After Yourself
It’s easy to forget about your own mental health when you’re helping someone close to you. Sure, there may be someone in a worse situation than yourself but that doesn’t mean you aren’t at risk.
If you’re giving time and headspace to a friend or family member who is struggling, you might not be looking after yourself as you would usually. Try out these steps to make sure you’re looking after your mental health.
Take a Break
When you’re providing ongoing support to another person, it can be emotionally and physically exhausting. You need to step away from the situation to give yourself a break.
If the person you’re supporting needs ongoing care, organise for a friend or relative to step in for you. If you don’t have anyone you can ask, speak to your doctor to find a way you can get the support you need.
Don’t isolate yourself from catching up with friends or family while you’re supporting someone in need. Continue your usual routine and try to exercise daily. Just going for a 10-minute walk can help clear your head. You can stop worrying about your friend during your exercise time to give yourself a break.
Eat and Drink Well
You can manage stress much better when you eat a nutritious diet. You will have more energy, a stronger immune system, and get a better night’s sleep. Try to avoid or limit your caffeine intake, if you do drink alcohol do so in moderation and avoid eating to relieve stress.
If You’re Under 18 & Providing Support
Many children suffering from mental health issues reach out to a friend for help. They may feel more comfortable talking to a friend than their parents or a doctor. But it can be a burden on you. Even if your friend has asked you not to tell anyone, it’s best to let your parents know that you’re supporting someone struggling with a mental health issue. Often people who provide support, particularly when you’re young need support themselves.
Where to Access Help
There are many places you can reach out for help. Depending on the situation, you may need an emergency service or a health service that can offer long-term support.
If the person you are assisting is in crisis, you may need to find immediate help for them.
Following are the contact details for organisations trained to handle emergencies.
Beyondblue– Information and support for people with anxiety or depression.
Call 1300 22 4636
Lifeline– 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention services
Call 13 11 14
Kids Helpline– Phone and online counselling service for 5-25-year-old people.
1800 55 1800
Black Dog Institute– Understanding and treating mental illness.
No crisis support
Suicide Call Back Service- Telephone and online counselling for people affected by suicide.
1300 659 467
If your friend isn’t in a crisis but may need the assistance of a mental health professional, encourage them to contact :
Local Doctor – Encourage your friend to go to see their GP. You could offer to drive them there if they are finding it difficult to get there.
Psychologist – Your friend could benefit from speaking with a qualified psychologist to discuss their issue. You can offer to go to the appointment with them or ask to catch up after the appointment. If you need more information, don’t hesitate to contact R U OK
? or one of the other organisations listed above.