How can I support a friend with mental health concerns when I’m struggling myself?
1) Dear Alice,
This is more of a coping question. I am a first-year who applied for a single room over the summer and was denied. I figured that everything would be okay nevertheless. I tried to look at the situation as a character-builder. Well, that is not the case. My roommate is very depressed. I talked to the RA on my floor, but she didn't take any action, except to talk with her. Unfortunately, my roommate is so ashamed of what's happening that she denied the facts, and the RA believed her. No one except me has realized yet that she is sleeping most of the day and all of the night, and that it is indeed a real problem. I have expressed my concern to her and encouraged her to go to counseling services. She went a couple of times and then started canceling appointments left and right. I have worried about her, but I have no backup whatsoever, so there is really nothing I can do to help at this point. We get along relatively well otherwise.
Right now, the concern I have is that her depression is pulling me down, too. I literally have not been alone anywhere for more than two to three minutes in weeks. I wanted a single because it's a requirement that I spend some time by myself, and I'm going crazy these days. The lights are always out in the room, and I've noticed that I'm sleeping more than usual myself as the situation has progressed. Also, I am having to deal with some personal issues of my own this semester, and I simply don't have the energy to take care of someone else who desperately wishes that I would do so. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated.
— Wish I Were a Loner
2) Hi Alice,
I know that when a friend is depressed, it's important to reach out, discuss the issue, and be there for the person as much as possible. But that's quite hard to do when I myself have a history with depression — I feel as if her emotions are taking me back to a place that I don't want to go. I really empathize with my friend and feel her pain, but at the same time know that I'd be useless to both of us if I'm in the troughs too. How can I help without sacrificing my always precarious emotional equilibrium?
Thanks, Blind Leading the Blind
Dear Wish I Were a Loner and Blind Leading the Blind,
You're both being kind and supportive friends. Depression can be challenging not just for those who are experiencing it, but for those around them who want to help. It’s common to encounter a variety of mental and emotional challenges when supporting a loved one who’s struggling with their mental health. That being said, the common adage "put your own mask on first before helping others around you” holds true even in scenarios like these. Prioritizing your mental health before attempting to care for others may help both you and your friends in the long run.
Though depression isn’t contagious like the flu, studies suggest that it’s possible to be influenced by the behavior, vocabulary, and mood of those you interact with. Risk factors that can make someone more susceptible to being influenced by others include:
- Having strong empathic abilities
- Being genetically predisposed to depression or having a family history of mood disorders
- Early exposure to mental health issues during childhood
- Having reassurance-seeking behaviors or anxious attachment styles
- Living with chronic medical conditions
List adapted from BetterHelp
Due to this, it's possible to mimic or experience depression symptoms. These symptoms can include difficulty concentrating, feelings of hopelessness, guilt, anxiety, negative thought patterns, mood swings, or changes in sleeping or eating habits.
Before you choose to help, you may first want to reflect on what kind of support you would like to be for your friend. Also consider how much energy and emotional reserve you are able to offer. Additionally, it can be helpful to remember that your responsibilities as a caring roommate and friend only extend so far. While you may be able to support your friend through some things, there are other times that you may suggest reaching out for additional help from a mental health professional.
If you decide that helping your friend is something you're ready and able to do, you may want to have a plan to support yourself at the same time. Some of these strategies may include:
- Addressing your own needs. Letting your friend know how you’re feeling can prevent these emotions from accumulating. Wish I Were a Loner, you mentioned wanting an agreement about having alone time in your room. One suggestion may be trading evenings that you spend alone in your room or scheduling a block of time when you know they’ll be at class or the library. Both of you may even benefit from this agreement, as it gives you both alone time whether that be in the comfort of your room or out and about.
- Seeking professional help. If you haven’t already, identifying people and resources for support, such as a mental health professional, may be helpful as you navigate this scenario. These are also resources you can consult as you navigate supporting your friend. In addition, recognizing the signs that your mental and emotional toll has worsened can be important in whether or not you make decisions to seek professional support for yourself.
- Setting boundaries. Having an open and meaningful conversation about your concerns regarding maintaining your own mental health during this time can help set boundaries. You might try speaking with your friend and sharing the ways in which you can and can't support them.
- Taking care of yourself. Getting seven to nine hours of sleep, incorporating regular physical activity into your schedule, eating a variety of whole foods, and staying hydrated may help support your physical and mental health during this time. Utilizing stress management techniques may also help you keep your stress levels manageable.
Once you’ve figured out how you plan to care for yourself, you can then redirect your energy to supporting your friend. Wish I Were a Loner, you mentioned speaking with a resident assistant (RA) about your situation and them not taking any further action. In addition to an RA, people in other positions at your school or in their personal life may be able to help. Some of these may include mental health professionals, RA supervisors, health promotion specialists, parents, and others who are frequently in contact with this person. Additional steps you may also choose to take to support your friend include:
- Asking how you can help. Have you asked them what you can do to help? Engaging in an open and honest discussion about your friend’s needs can help you formulate the way you provide support.
- Providing resources. Crisis hotlines, such as the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, have trained professionals that offer free and confidential support for those struggling with mental health. Additionally, there may be support groups on campus that can provide them or you further support.
- Acting as emotional support. After reaching out to other professionals, you may choose to be there with your friend if you're both comfortable with that.
- Encouraging self-care. Providing your friend with examples of self-care and how it can positively impact mental health may be helpful. Self-care activities may include meditation, physical activity, painting, engaging in a hobby, and going for a walk, among others. You may even find that doing these activities together is helpful for both of you, as it allows mutual support and helps you both stay committed.
While these suggestions may be valuable to your friend, you might also discover that they’re helpful for your own mental health journey, as well. And while you can share these resources with your friend, it’s ultimately their choice whether or not to employ them.
Best of luck on your journey,
Originally published Feb 01, 1994
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