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How to help a friend struggling with their mental health

When a young person runs into trouble with their mental health they often look for help within their friendship circle. This means it’s likely that at some point in time, if you haven’t already, you may be called upon to support a mate who is struggling. With youth mental illness rising to alarming levels it’s good to be familiar with the warning signs that show someone might be experiencing more than just the usual ups and downs.

What are the signs that a friend needs help?

One of the main things to look out for is a change in mood or behaviour: your friend might appear stressed, worried, angry or sad. According to Associate Professor Matthew Fuller-Tyszkiewicz from the School of Psychology at Deakin University, ‘If they seem unenthused by tasks that they typically enjoy it might be an indicator that they are feeling depressed or anxious.’ They might seem to have less energy than usual, in a way that seems out of the norm. They may also show signs of different eating patterns (eating much more or less than usual) or they may report difficulty sleeping.

Assoc. Prof. Fuller-Tyszkiewicz cautions that it’s best to take a look at the full picture before assuming someone needs help with their mental health. ‘It’s important to place any of those changes within a broader context. If someone is bereaving for instance, then it would be understandable that they might be sad and less interested in going out than they previously were. We don’t want to jump too quickly to conclusions.’

'If they seem unenthused by tasks that they typically enjoy it might be an indicator that they are feeling depressed or anxious.'

Associate Professor Matthew Fuller-Tyszkiewicz,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

How to show your support  

While mental health may seem like a daunting topic to broach, providing support could involve activities as simple as asking them out for a coffee or a walk to motivate healthy behaviours. Assoc. Prof. Fuller-Tyszkiewicz suggests that saying ‘you seem different from your normal self’ can be a great way to gently start the conversation. ‘Don’t be put off if they are more hesitant or reluctant to go out. Their reluctance to go out may be because of how they are feeling.’

Letting your friend know that you are concerned can help to raise their awareness about their own behaviour. Assoc. Prof. Fuller-Tyszkiewicz says: ‘One of the reasons younger people often don’t seek help is lack of familiarity and awareness that they have these symptoms that might be problematic.’

When you are gathering information online it’s essential that you stick to highly credible sources. Beyond Blue, Headspace and Black Dog Institute are organisations that can help you assess the situation. Once you’ve have found some resources that seem relevant, be wary of dumping too much information on the other person. Assoc. Prof. Fuller-Tyszkiewicz recommends curating the information into a short and informative read.

How to enlist the help of others

As they tell us every time we catch a flight, you need to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Caring for someone who is experiencing mental illness can be demanding and it’s essential to know when things are out of your scope. Assoc. Prof. Fuller-Tyszkiewicz says: ‘It’s not realistic to expect that you would have all of the solutions yourself.’

Encouraging your friend to make an appointment with a GP can help to link them in with a number of mental health services like psychologists and psychiatrists who require a referral. While there can be downsides to the online world when it comes to mental health, technology has increased the opportunities for people to get help. Assoc. Prof. Fuller-Tyszkiewicz was involved in the development of BlueWatch, an app that helps young people track their moods and says there are many other apps that can be helpful. ‘It’s just another piece in the puzzle: some people don’t mind face-to-face and might even prefer talking to a clinician but others might like to do it themselves in their own time. These web and app based approaches may be more suitable for them.’

If you believe that your friend needs urgent assistance you should call emergency services (triple zero – 000) or take them to the nearest hospital emergency department. If you need a second opinion on how to respond, Beyond Blue has a support line (1300 22 4636) that you or your friend can call. It’s open 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Depending on the age and family situation of your friend it may be a good idea to get their parents involved.

Assoc. Prof. Fuller-Tyszkiewicz says that a worthwhile role for a support person is to bring a sense of perspective. ‘Helping your friend to see that there are some terrific treatments available that can really help improve things might give them a sense of hope.’

Are you interested in learning about mental health issues on a societal level? Read more about careers in psychological science.

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Assoc. Prof. Matthew Fuller-Tyszkiewicz
Assoc. Prof. Matthew Fuller-Tyszkiewicz

Associate Professor, School of Psychology, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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