4 ways to support a friend who is struggling

Living through a pandemic is hard – really hard. Our abilities to cope with sustained stress only go so far. It doesn’t take much to feel pushed to our limits. Perhaps you’ve noticed a friend who seems to be more than just tired or having a bad week. How can you help when someone you care about is struggling?

Connect with creativity and compassion
“Sometimes sharing an activity puts less pressure on people than if they have to hold conversations and share things if they’re not comfortable with it,” says Dr. Alexa Bagnell, chief of psychiatry at IWK Health and head of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Dalhousie University.

Getting outside together is an ideal way to take someone out of the pressures of their day-to-day routine, she says. If in-person visits aren’t an option, set up a video call to focus on an activity you both enjoy—pick up your paint brushes, garden gloves, or Scrabble boards. It can even be as simple as making supper together over FaceTime.

Approach these invitations with compassion.

“It’s that initial reaching out and checking in,” she says, “and not overwhelming them with all the reasons you think they might not be doing well.”

Listen…really listen
You may need to reach out several times before your friend wants to talk. When they are ready to share, be ready to listen.

“The biggest thing you can do is to really listen, and not to try and fix or to jump in and say you know exactly what it’s like even if you’ve had similar experiences,” Dr. Bagnell says. “That can feel invalidating.”

Compassionate listening is hard, she acknowledges.

“It takes quite a bit of mental energy and emotional energy to stay in the moment and not try to fix it or tell another story. When someone is struggling, they need a strong listener.”

Get the help they need in that moment
If your friend needs a higher level of support, offer to help with first steps. You could dial the phone for a mental health self-referral call or to make a doctor appointment, for example.

“Sometimes even the smallest task will feel gargantuan,” Dr. Bagnell says. “Be there for that person in getting that first appointment or helping them make the phone call. If you can help with small things, it can make a big difference.”

It’s OK to ask about suicide or self-harm
If your friend is showing signs that they are thinking about suicide or harming themselves, ask a direct question about it.

“If you are worried, it is important to ask,” Dr. Bagnell says. “It does not increase the risk that they’re going to think about suicide or harming themselves just because you asked it.”

You might ask, “Have you thought about suicide or doing something to hurt yourself?” Add something like, “I am worried about you, and I care so much about you. I would like to help you get connected to the right support right now.” Follow through with that support if needed.

f you are having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, or are in crisis and need help right away, please call the provincial Mental Health Crisis Line toll-free at 1-888-429-8167. You can also call 911 or visit your local emergency department. Click here to learn about mental health resources available in your community.

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