How to support a friend with mental health issues
Poppy Jaman, co-founder of Mental Health First Aid, shares her tips for supporting a friend
At 20, I gave birth to my first daughter. Shortly after, I was diagnosed by my GP with post-natal depression and anxiety. While I was prescribed medication, my condition continued to deteriorate with psychotic episodes developing. It was a dark time for me, and I needed support from my family - many of whom did not understand what I was going through or even what mental illness was.
I tried looking for information that could help explain my mental health issues, but realised there was a complete lack of helpful literature out there. This was when I realised that mental health literacy needs to be improved on a global scale. To help tackle the stigma around mental ill health we need to be more open about talking it - both in terms of how it can affect us and what support is needed. This is especially true of the LGBT+ community.
Forty percent of LGBT+ people experience a mental health issue, compared to 25% of the wider population. A new report from the London Assembly backs up what we already know: mental ill health affects LGBT+ people disproportionately. It's estimated 70% of lesbians experience mental health issues, with the rates among bisexual women even higher.
Today (2 February 2017) is Time To Talk Day, a day which encourages everyone to come together to pledge to tackle mental health stigma. The day aims to get people talking as feeling unable to communicate a mental health issue can feel very isolating.
Today also marks the second day of LGBT History Month, a month to celebrate the achievements of LGBT+ people and help promote equality and diversity. We need to do so much more to support the wellbeing of our society LGBT+ community, and improving support for mental health is part of the solution. Here are my six tips on how you can support a friend experiencing mental health issues.
Remember: just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it's not there
We're doing better as a society in recognising that, just as we have physical health, we also have mental health. It's important to remember that just because you can't see the symptoms of mental ill health, it doesn't mean it's not happening.
It can feel difficult to spot a mental health issue, in others or even yourself. But there are things to look out for. Have you noticed that someone is suffering from frequent minor illnesses or no longer seems to care for their appearance? Perhaps they're no longer as confident as they seemed to be, or are having difficulty remembering things? Are they having difficulty sleeping, becoming more aggressive, or increasingly relying on that extra glass of wine or cigarette? These are just some of the signs that can indicate someone might be experiencing a mental health issue.
A simple "how are you?" is a good place to start
It can feel difficult to know where to start when it comes to talking about mental health. Sometimes people worry they will make matters worse but it is important to remember you don't have to be an expert to start a conversation about mental health. It doesn't have to be complicated; you don't have to find the words for the exact, perfect sentence. Open questions can work really well. Just simply ask someone how they're feeling, and then really listen.
If they don't open up, that's ok. They may not know what to say, either. Just let them know you're there and, when they are ready, you'll be there to listen.
Think, before you talk
For many people experiencing a mental health issue, just knowing that someone is there for them can help. Comforting, non-judgemental comments that let the person know you are there for them work well. Saying "I'm here for you" or simply sitting and staying with a person if they're having a panic attack, for example, can make a difference.
It's best to avoid advice that is too direct such as "calm down" or "don't think about it" or "put it out of your mind". Instead, let the person know that you will support them for as long as is needed in that moment.
Maybe it's because we can still feel uncomfortable talking about mental health but when someone is experiencing a mental health issue people sometimes back away. If someone was in hospital for a broken arm would you send them a card or flowers or wish them well?
It's no different with mental illness - it's important to let a person know you are thinking of them and it shows you care. Even if it's just a quick text.
Don't try to do too much
Being a supportive friend doesn't mean it's your responsibility to make everything better.
Asking someone what they would like to happen can encourage them to realise they want help, and you can then signpost them in the direction of further, qualified support. There's a list of suitable guidance on our website: mhfaengland.org/contact.
Don't forget: the issue isn't going to just go away
10 million adults will experience a mental health issue each year. So we need to keep the conversation going all year round - beyond Time To Talk Day.
Take 10 minutes on a regular basis to talk to those around you about mental health and it will help to start make a difference.
Poppy Jaman is the CEO and one of the co-founders of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England. Poppy's interest in mental health began when she developed post-natal depression at the age of 20. Over the course of her career, Poppy has worked her way up, from leaving school at 16 to being recognised as ninth on the Fortuna 50 list of fastest-growing women-led companies.
To find out more about how you can support the mental wellbeing of those in your life and to enquire about Mental Health First Aid training, visit mhfaengland.org.
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