When someone you love is hurting or struggling, it’s easy to feel their pain too. Especially when they’re a close friend or family member. You want to do something to help, but you might not know where to start or what would be beneficial for them.
It’s common to have people in your life who struggle with mental health in some way. It could be anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, burnout, grief, or a number of other things. They may have been diagnosed when they were younger and have been managing it for some time. Or they may not know for sure and have never received professional help. Mental health affects many people, especially college and university students, and it manifests itself in both big and small ways.
A few friends of mine who have been diagnosed with depression are some of the sweetest, happiest, full-of-life kind of people that I know! I was shocked when they shared their news with me. But what I observe from the outside doesn’t always match how they feel on the inside.
When you realize your friend is struggling, you may be unsure of how to respond: How do I best support, love, and care for this friend through their mental health struggles? We want to be there for them in both the good times and the bad. Proverbs 17:17 speaks to this kind of friendship. In The Voice bible translation it says, “A true friend loves regardless of the situation, and a real brother exists to share the tough times” and in The Message bible translation it reads, “Friends love through all kinds of weather.”
I’m not an expert in counselling or mental health, but I do have some experience that I hope will help if you’re in the same shoes as me.
It’s important to be aware of your friend’s situation: things like the diagnosis, how long they have been struggling with it, whether they take medication or not, if they are consistently seeing a counsellor, and knowing what helps and hinders their mental health.
Some people may have triggers that cause their anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts to surge. If you know what some of those things are, you might be able to help your friend steer clear of them and any distress that might come from them. It could be certain places, people, things, or even times of the year. Some triggers are unavoidable (like the winter or exam time), but helping with others could involve setting some boundaries, or even talking with them before they go to a place where they have experienced a panic attack before, for example.
I have one friend diagnosed with anxiety and depression who always has a more difficult time with her mental health in the month of January. So our friend group would be more sensitive to this, and ask if she needed anything from us for accountability or time together in community throughout that season.
When you’re present and available for someone, it shows you care—that’s true for any relationship! In this case, it might mean sending them a text, giving them a call, or planning to meet up for a study date. Catch up with them and ask how they’re really doing. If you live together it can be as simple as asking, “How was your day?” and actually listening as they share their experiences and feelings. It might involve tears sometimes. You might not always know what to say. But just being there says a lot. There is power in presence, even if we can’t fix all their problems.
Your friend may be withdrawn or want time to themselves, so invite them to get out of the house or to do something together. We all need some alone time, but when it becomes excessive and unhealthy, we need to reach out and remind them that they aren’t alone and people do care about them.
Being available might also mean going the extra mile, whether it’s cooking them a meal, or doing chores together, or accompanying them to a counselling appointment. When I was in my final year of university I got a car, and it has been an awesome opportunity to bless others. One friend had nervously asked, if it wasn’t too much trouble, to drive her to a counselling appointment across town. Otherwise she would have needed to bus over an hour each way. It was no problem for me—a pleasure, actually—to practically serve my friend in this way, and to be available after the counselling session to debrief and talk more if she needed that.
Mental health is similar to physical health in the way that it can take someone out for a few days, and it may be so serious that they need to be hospitalized. Your friend may not show up for things because of their mental health, and we should respond with care and grace. Instead of getting upset at them for cancelling your coffee date again, think of how you could reach out to them, or pray for them, or come up with solutions that would make it easier for them—like bringing your coffee date plans to their house, for example.
Recently a friend couldn’t make it to a big celebration of mine. I thought she was coming, so I was a little upset at first. Then I saw a text from her later, explaining that she was in the hospital because she had been suicidal. My heart sank when I first read it. I had no idea she had such a tough week. I responded with things like, “Not a problem. You gotta take care of your health” and, “Sorry to hear that! Hope you got the help you need.” I didn’t let any anger show or make light of the situation, but was understanding and compassionate. We need to show grace to all of our friends. The circumstances just might be different for the friends with mental health struggles.
God is so gracious with us, so we should be extending that same attitude and love towards others. In the Psalms, God is praised for being “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86: 15). Let’s strive to be Christ-like in character when we feel disappointed, impatient, or hurt in these tough situations.
There are also some things I recommend not to do (some of which I’ve heard from others or read in blog posts written by people who have had negative experiences with these reactions).
Although we might believe we know what would be best for these friends, we can’t force them into anything. We can do things like encourage them to see a counsellor, offer to help them set up an appointment with their family doctor, invite them to events, and initiate conversations. However, it is ultimately their choice to take action on these things or not. You are playing the supporting role, the loving friend who wants them to be healthy, but you can’t control what they do or do not do (as tough as that may be). You can’t be anyone’s personal saviour—that’s Jesus’ role!
If your friend is a Christian, it can be tempting to just throw Bible verses at them, but that might not be what they need to hear at that time. They may know deep in their hearts that God loves them and can carry their burdens. They have probably prayed for this illness and pain to be taken from them hundreds, if not thousands, of times. They might have experienced true joy in the Lord just yesterday. Mental health can be unpredictable, just like physical health. Yes, we should be relying on God for strength and praying for healing, but over-spiritualizing the situation is potentially damaging.
In this blog post, “A Christian primer on anxiety and depression”, you can read about the importance of a holistic approach to mental health, and finding a balance between the physical and the spiritual.
Your friend may struggle with mental health for their whole lives. You could feel burdened by trying to support and care for them day in and day out. Don’t give up. If you feel wearied by it, give it over to God. Jesus invites us into his rest in Matthew 11:28 saying, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest” (CEB translation).
Your friend might be encouraged and lifted up by you more than you know. There will likely be some difficult conversations and tough days ahead, but persevere. You can have a huge impact on someone’s life by demonstrating your love for them as a loyal friend who deeply cares about their health and wellbeing. Remind your friend that you’re there for them, and that they can have hope despite the pain and distress they may be experiencing.
God doesn’t give up on us. His patience, love, and grace are limitless. Although we obviously aren’t infinite like God is, we do have his Spirit who can empower, strengthen, and guide us in these difficult and emotionally heavy situations. Pray for your friends who struggle with their mental health. Pray that God would be working mightily in their lives. And pray for yourself as you help your friends navigate these tough times, for wisdom about how to best support these friends, who you love and care for so much!
Jesus can change lives. He can free people from mental health struggles and provide true healing. God is powerful, and is able to do far more abundantly than all we could ever ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20)! And it’s to him that we can entrust our own lives, and the lives of our friends.
Looking for some mental health resources?
- Check out the Health and Counselling services on your campus
- Links related to Preventing Suicide from the Government of Canada
- Links, resources, videos, and articles from the faith-based site howtokillyourself.org