It's hard to stand by when someone you care about is going through a difficult experience like symptoms of a mental illness, trauma, difficulties with substance use, or loss of a family member. Maybe they’ve talked about an illness or maybe you’ve noticed that they don't seem like themselves. You might feel awkward talking about mental health or worry about saying the wrong thing.
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If you're concerned about a friend, it's important to ask them what's happening and what they need without making assumptions or jumping to conclusions. Imagine that you broke your arm but everyone treats you like you've broken a leg. You'd probably feel really frustrated, maybe even hurt or angry. Let your friend know that you want to help, but let them tell you what they need. Many people just need a friend: someone they can hang out with and have fun together and someone they can talk to when they need some support.
Remember that you are not a mental health professional. You aren't there to make a diagnosis or give medical advice. You are there to support your friend and help them find a professional if they need it.
Helping a friend doesn't mean:
Giving medical advice or acting like their psychologist, counsellor, or doctor
Making decisions for your friend
Solving all of your friend's problems
Doing everything for your friend
Helping a friend can affect your own well-being and it's important to help yourself, too. The Taking care of yourself section later in this info sheet has tips on managing your own mental health and setting healthy boundaries.
How can I help?
You can be there to listen.
When people are going through something difficult or confusing, simply providing a space for them to share their thoughts, or talking through their experiences be very helpful. As a friend, you can be there to listen without judgement.
Some people want to talk a lot while others may not. Pushing someone to share or talk about their feelings can hurt if they don't want to talk. It’s better to ask what your friend needs and respect their wishes.
When a friend has a health problem, you may feel like you have to talk about health or their illness a lot. However, there's much more to people than an illness or health problem! Keep including your friend in your usual conversations and remember to ask how they're doing in other parts of their life.
You can learn together.
When it comes to any health concern, there's a lot to learn! Learning more about mental health and mental illness can help people take care of themselves. It can also help friends understand what another person is experiencing and how they can really help.
Learning together may be as simple as finding a few books or trustworthy websites and reading them together. You can also find events and courses through local mental health organizations, schools, and campuses.
You can share experiences.
If you've experienced a health concern in the past or if you're currently dealing with a health concern, you probably have a lot of insight on how you deal with challenges and stay well. Maybe a particular service provider really helped you or you know a great organization in your community. This kind of information is really helpful for other people. You might consider asking your friend if they want to know what worked for you, before you share your experience with them. Sometimes people don’t want advice and that's okay, too.
You can offer practical help.
When people are experiencing symptoms of a mental illness or other challenge, they may not be able to do everything that they want to do. If your friend is finding it hard to take care of daily tasks, you can ask if they need any help. Even small things like taking a friend to an appointment, helping with their grocery shopping, or delivering a healthy meal can make a big difference.
Experiences of mental illness can change over time and your friend may ask for different kinds of help. For example, a friend might want to talk a lot about their experience with depression early on but find that they'd rather talk about their old interests and activities as they find a good psychotherapist and start to feel better. In other cases, people may refuse help at first but feel more comfortable asking later on. It's okay to check in once in a while to make sure your friend has the help and support they need.
Where can I find help for my friend?
One of the most important things you can do for a friend (or other people in your life) is connecting them with services. Remember, it is not up to you to have all the answers or to solve every problem.
Your school's counsellor is a good place to start. Some schools offer their own programs for students. Your school's counsellor can also recommend services or organizations in your community that can help. If you feel more comfortable talking with a particular teacher or staff member, they can also help connect you with services and supports.
If you aren't comfortable talking with someone at school, there are also phone lines for young people who are looking for help. Youth in BC (www.youthinbc.com) and the Kids Help Phone (www.kidshelpphone.ca) are two good options. They are there to listen and they can suggest services or other helpful places to go in your area.
Campuses have counselling departments that support students who need help. You can also find services through your campus' health and wellness services or your student union or student services society. Depending on your friend's situation, your campus' disability services can also help, especially if your friend would like practical help and assistance like note-taking and test-taking. Many campuses host education events, peer support or support groups, and other useful options. If a friend is having problems with conflict (like a problem with an instructor), the campus ombudsperson can help people work towards a resolution.
In the community
A family doctor or nurse practitioner is often the first person someone sees for mental health concerns. Try contacting a local mental health organization for services like support groups, programs to help people who experience a mental illness, or programs to support loved ones. They're also a great place to get practical advice and suggestions you might not have considered. You'll find contact information for mental health organizations in BC at www.heretohelp.bc.ca. For good health information, HealthLink BC is a good option. Call 811 to talk to a registered nurse or visit www.healthlinkbc.ca. You can find resources for young people through Kelty Mental Health. Visit www.keltymentalhealth.ca or call 1-800-665-1822.
In an emergency or crisis
If you are concerned about a friend's immediate safety, call 911.
If you are concerned about a friend but don't think that they are in immediate danger, try calling your local crisis line. They are trained to help in crises and emergency, but they can also offer advice and community resources. To connect with a crisis line in BC, call the BC Mental Health Support Line at 310-6789 (no area code).
If a friend experiences thoughts of suicide or talks about suicide, call 1-800-784-2433 (1-800-SUICIDE). They are trained to help you cope with the situation and help your friend.
Depending on your friend's situation, they may work with their health care provider to make a crisis plan. Crisis plans usually outline what will happen when someone feels unwell. Ask your friend if they have a crisis plan, sometimes called a safety plan, in place so you know what to do, if needed.
Taking care of yourself
Supporting someone else can affect your own well-being. It's normal to feel overwhelmed, upset, or angry when someone you care about experiences difficulties, so it's important to take care of your own health, too. If you've been helping someone for a long time, you might feel tired or start to believe that you haven't been helpful. Small steps like getting enough sleep, getting some exercise, and spending time on activities you enjoy are good for everyone. If you're having a hard time, it's a good idea to seek support for yourself. Any of the places in the Where can I find help for my friend? section of this info sheet are good places to start.
An important part of any relationship is boundaries. Even though you want to help, it's important to think about your limits, such as what you're not willing to put up with or what you aren't willing to do. For example, it's reasonable (and healthy!) to ask that a friend not call or text you after a certain time. Have an open conversation about your boundaries so that everyone is clear. Remember to revaluate your boundaries and make changes, if needed—what worked at one point may not work in a month or a year.
What if a friend isn't ready for help?
This can be a hard situation. You can see that a friend is having a tough time, but you feel like they aren't doing anything about it. People naturally think of what might be causing the problem and wonder why their friend won't seek help, but remember that it isn't your job to diagnose an illness or give treatment advice. Accusing or confronting a friend likely isn't going to help anyone. If you decide to talk with a friend, remember to be supportive, calm, and non-judgemental. Here are more tips to try:
Ask your friend if they've been having problems lately, and let them know that you're a good person to talk to when they're ready.
Instead of giving your friend a list of problems you've noticed, talk about how you've been affected. Instead of saying, "You don't do anything anymore!" you could try, "I feel hurt when you cancel our plans at the last minute. Is something going on?"
Respond to problems that they bring up. For example, if they complain about feeling like they can't concentrate at school, you might suggest talking about that problem with someone who can help, like a teacher or school counsellor.
There may be another person in your friend's life that they really respect and seek out when they need advice. That person may have also noticed changes and may have more of an influence.
Find a way to talk that makes it easier to get to the harder stuff. For one person, it may be texting in the evening. For someone else, it may be going for a walk or going to a coffee shop.
If you're really concerned about a friend, talk with an adult you trust, like a teacher, your school counsellor, or a parent. Your friend may be angry that you brought others into the situation, but it's more important to keep people safe.
Unless your friend is in danger of hurting themselves or someone else, there's one important point to keep in mind: it is your friend's right to decide how they are going to deal with it, even if you don't agree with their choice.
Where can I find more information?
Visit www.heretohelp.bc.ca to learn more about supporting a loved one, learn more about mental health, mental illnesses and substances, take a screening self-test and find resources in BC.
Youth in BC
Visit www.youthinbc.com to chat online with a volunteer (every day from 12:00 pm to 1:00 am). You can also talk with someone at any time at 1-866-661-3311 or 604-872-3311 (in the Lower Mainland). You'll also find information on mental health on their website.
Visit www.foundrybc.ca for Foundry, a one-stop office for youth ages 12–24 seeking mental and physical health services, supports, or information. Foundry locations are available around the province and some services are available virtually. Visit www.foundrybc.ca for more information and local contact information.
Kelty Mental Health
Visit www.keltymentalhealth.ca to find resources and help for and about young people.
Mental Health Support Line
Call 310-6789 (no area code) 24 hours a day to connect to a BC crisis line without a wait or busy signal. They can help in a crisis situation, but they are also there to listen if you just need to talk and they can help you find resources in your area.
About the author
The Canadian Mental Health Association promotes the mental health of all and supports the resilience and recovery of people experiencing a mental illness through public education, community-based research, advocacy, and direct services. Visit www.cmha.bc.ca.