I often receive phone calls from caring individuals concerned about a friend’s mental health. They are seeing signs of depression or anxiety in their friend. They see worrying symptoms of isolation, lack of enjoyment in activities, and even just a shell of the friend he or she used to be. It is hard to watch someone suffer and not know how to best support him or her during a mental health struggle.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports one in five adults struggled with mental illness in 2020, but only 45 percent of those struggling seek help.¹ With statistics like this, you likely are concerned about someone in your life. Whether it is depression, anxiety, or another mental health disorder, knowing how to support and point the person in the direction of help can make all the difference.
Have a Plan and Educate Yourself
When you first approach a friend with your concerns, have a plan of what you want to say. Write it out, and be simple and concrete. Make sure you are approaching others with compassion and understanding, not with shame or guilt about their struggles. What they need most is an available, empathetic listener who can gently guide them to whatever help they need.
Additionally, become familiar with the signs and symptoms of someone struggling with his or her mental health. Look for changes in mood, appetite, or social engagements or seeming to be restless or fidgety. You also want to pay attention to unexplained physical symptoms someone may be reporting, such as nausea, shortness of breath, or feeling fatigued. Let them know you see they are struggling and you want to be with them and help them find the resources they need to feel better. Often, when people are struggling with mental health, it is difficult for them to recognize how poorly they are feeling.
As an outsider looking in, you can help them see the bigger picture. You can help them put into words what they are experiencing. This is a helpful step as they explore different resources, such as meeting with a minister, getting professional counseling, seeking psychiatric help, or visiting their doctor. Offer to attend an appointment with them to help paint a picture of what you see. You can also point friends to skills that could improve their ability to cope, such as moving their bodies, keeping a journal, spending time with loved ones, or meditating on Scripture passages.
Most importantly, be patient. Ephesians 4:2 says, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” This verse sums up what it means to come alongside those who are struggling with mental health. Be humble and gentle as you discuss what is happening with your friend, and be patient as you allow him or her time to utilize resources you discover together. Help bear your friend’s burden by sharing the weight of what he or she is experiencing.
Not all individuals will be ready to act on all you have to offer. Your job is not to fix them but rather to gently offer resources and a listening ear. Remember, if people are struggling with mental health issues, something that may seem simple for you might feel like climbing Mount Everest to them. Make sure to look for realistic goals and align your expectations with those goals.
Caring for Yourself
Because you cannot give what you do not have, you must make sure you are caring well for yourself as you care for others. Your soul needs to be strengthened so you can bear the weight of these burdens. For this reason, you must make sure you are engaging in self-care.
One of the best pictures in Scripture of our need to care for our bodies is in 1 Kings 19. In this chapter, Elijah was fleeing a terrifying situation. He was emotionally desperate, and it is obvious his body needed care. He first lay down under a tree to sleep, then he ate food and drank water the angel brought, and finally he slept again. Verses 7 and 8 say, “The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’ So he got up and ate and drank.” Without nourishment or sleep, Elijah could not have continued on his journey. We, too, cannot function or care for others if we are not doing the same.
Managing your emotions and setting boundaries for yourself is also a vital step. It is OK to know your limits and know you cannot be available all the time. Make sure to communicate your availability and when you need to take a step back. Be willing to add in other social supports, such as pastors, friends, and family, for yourself too. Remember, it is OK for you to ask for help if you begin to notice yourself struggling.
Without doing these things, you could be on the road to caregiver burnout. The Cleveland Clinic describes caregiver burnout as the following:
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and other loved ones
- Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Feeling blue, irritable, hopeless, and helpless
- Changes in appetite, weight, or both
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Getting sick more often than usual
- Feelings of wanting to hurt yourself or the person for whom you are caring
- Emotional and physical exhaustion
It is a sacred space to walk alongside someone struggling with mental health. But it takes energy and can take a toll if you are not also caring for yourself. Scriptures call us to care for one another and support one another. But we must do what we can to ensure we care for ourselves along the way.
Lisa Keane is a licensed professional counselor supervisor in Birmingham, Alabama, and a national board-certified counselor. For more than 15 years, Lisa has worked to help individuals and families seek hope and healing through counseling. She has been a speaker at national and local events on topics such as mental health, parenting, marriage, and many other issues. Lisa believes everyone deserves to live a full, meaningful life. She loves to work with individuals and families to help them discover how to do just that.
¹National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Mental Health By the Numbers,” https://www.nami.org/mhstats.
²Cleveland Clinic, “Caregiver Burnout,” https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9225-caregiver-burnout.
Disclaimer: The information shared on this page is not meant to diagnose or treat a mental health condition. We encourage you to follow up with your health-care provider and seek a mental health professional for individual consultation and care.