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Talking to anyone about their mental health—whether they be a friend, whānau, or someone you only know peripherally—can feel like a huge challenge. The decline into depression, anxiety, and any mental illness is a difficult one, and one of the biggest things that can help is having enough support to help get through it. However, if you’ve found yourself in the position of being that support, you might be feeling a little lost yourself.

It’s okay to be confused or scared; mental health is a sensitive topic for a lot of people and feeling the pressure of needing to say the “right” thing is tough. As an organisation with branches in mental health and addiction care, we have a few tips for anyone who might be facing this problem.

Let them know you’re there for them

As we said before, support from friends and family members will make a world of difference to someone dealing with any mental illness. If depression and anxiety were people, they’d be smart. They “protect” themselves by making the person they are afflicting feel isolated and alone, which makes it easier for these issues to take hold and get stronger.

Loving and supportive relationships immediately counteract this downward spiral. So what’s the best thing you can do? Let your friend or family member know that you are there for them. Not just through words — although words are crucial — but by spending time with them, doing things they enjoy, and not judging their journey. This kind of mental health support is invaluable to anyone struggling. It pulls them out of their shell and breaks that cycle of isolation.

Be honest, there is no “right” thing to say

A trap that many people fall into is the thought that there is a “right” and a “wrong” thing to say to someone battling a mental illness. The truth is, as long as you are coming from a place of love and care, there’s no one “right” thing to say.

If they tell you about the bad day they have had, or reveal a thought that has been circling in their mind, just be honest with them. Make sure to check in with yourself before you speak, and see if your words are coming from a place of acceptance or a place of judgement.

If you don’t know what to say, it’s okay to let them know. Reiterate that you are there for them, offer advice if they ask for it, and otherwise simply be their friend. In the end, that’s what they need you to be.

Listen without judgement

Finally, it is incredibly important to make space in your mind and just listen to your friend. We all instinctually want to offer advice, solutions, ways to make the problem go away, but that’s not a helpful approach when it comes to mental health.

All anyone really wants is to feel understood and listened to, especially when they’re down. So, put aside the impulse to give advice, and simply listen to them talk. Ask questions, sympathise, and allow them a safe space to offload the tension or sadness they are carrying with them. If you’ve ever struggled with a mental illness yourself, share your experiences and validate that their feelings are okay, they are not broken or wrong.

This is not to say that you should entirely refrain from giving advice; if they ask for it, go for it! Just hold off on it as best you can until they extend that invitation on their own.

Providing a safe space where your friend can be listened to, free of judgement, is like giving them a bright spot in the day. A place where everything is easier for a little bit, and they can breathe out.

Know someone struggling, or battling your own mental illness?

Ask for help—it’s one of the strongest things you can do. At Lifewise we are always ready to help someone in need, so don’t hesitate to get in contact with us. For anyone who knows what it is like to deal with a mental illness, consider a donation so that we can go on supporting our local whānau.