Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Watching out for a friend with mental health problems

With the number of reported mental health issues amongst students higher than ever and suicide rates in higher education having increased by over 50% since the year 2001, it’s no wonder that mental health at university has become such a widely discussed topic. When you or someone you care about is struggling, it’s so easy to feel helpless. It’s so important to make sure you have open, honest discussions with the people around you about each other’s mental health, and make sure your close friends know you’ll be there for them if they’re struggling. Beyond that, there are a few simple ways you can make sure you’re doing your best to support your loved ones.

Don’t wait for a serious problem to develop before you help a friend. University can be a difficult environment at the best of times, and you don’t need to have been diagnosed with a mental illness to feel like you’re struggling. It’s important to practise self-care and establish a good support network regardless of your mental health. So, let your friends know that you’ll be there to support them, even if they think their problems may seem trivial. Having an outlet to occasionally vent or moan about that annoying essay or exam stress can do wonders.

Sharing your own struggles can help too – not only will it be good for yourself but may also help a friend who otherwise may feel too embarrassed or ashamed to admit they’re feeling the pressure. After all, Warwick has a competitive environment, and it’s all too easy to put on a brave face or even avoid confronting your issues yourself. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re the only one who’s unable to keep up.

When you’re in a dark place, it can sometimes feel like you’re burdening your friends with your problems

Look out for the warning signs of more serious mental health issues. It is critical that you’re able to pick up on these – the sooner you can step in, the better. It can be difficult to know what is a sign of danger and what is a minor blip. For example, we’ve all missed the odd seminar and stayed in bed all day (totally unrelated to the night of heavy drinking before, of course), but if you notice your previously dedicated and studious pal is suddenly avoiding going to university all together, you should know something’s up. The same can be said for a previously social butterfly who is suddenly mysteriously off the radar. Everyone’s different and so is their mental health, so there’s no universal checklist for these indicators – it depends on what is typical behaviour for each individual. However, it’s worth noting when someone’s behaviour or general attitudes change and asking what’s going on.

Don’t be afraid to appear clingy. Yes, it can be disheartening to always feel like you’re the one who has to reach out in a relationship, but it’s all too common for those struggling with mental health issues to feel completely shut off from others around them. When you’re in a dark place, it can sometimes feel like you’re burdening your friends with your problems or that you don’t deserve to bother them. At times like this, a simple text or phone call to show you care can feel like a lifeline.

University can be alienating when it seems as though all the social events revolve around drinking and partying hard

Don’t take personal offence if your friend flakes at the last minute because they feel unwell or overwhelmed. Don’t jump to the conclusion that they think you’re not worth their time. Of course, that doesn’t mean mental illnesses justify any and all bad friend behaviour, but just try to be a little more understanding – perhaps offer to rearrange or change plans if possible.

Plan some downtime. University can be alienating when it seems as though all the social events revolve around drinking and partying hard, and socialising can often feel like the last thing you’re able to do with anxiety or depression. Let’s face it, when you’re in a bad mindspace, no amount of cheesy songs at POP! can save your night. It’s also important to remember that mental illnesses and medications can also have a physical effect on you, whether that’s tiredness, headaches, or feeling sick. When feeling this way drinking or staying out all night can seem like a nightmare. It could be helpful then, if you’ve noticed your friend hasn’t been out on many nights out recently, to organise a more chilled out catch-up. Perhaps invite them out for dinner or offer to stay in with them.

Your role as a friend is not to cure people, but rather to be there to support them in times of need

Encourage them to get help. If you think your friend is in serious danger, it goes without saying that you should get in touch with professionals and advise them to do the same. However, even if it’s not an emergency, students at Warwick are fortunate enough to have several options for mental health support. It could be worth looking into this with your friend, especially if they may not be motivated enough to do this on their own accord. Getting help can seem daunting but it doesn’t have to be as serious as going straight to the doctor for medication – it can be as easy as exchanging a few emails with a mental health professional for advice.

Look after yourself too. You should never be put in a position where you feel like you have to assume responsibility for another student – there is a reason the university has employed professionals to help those in need. Unfortunately, mental health issues don’t just disappear overnight, no matter how many deep chats you have about your insecurities and struggles. Your role as a friend is not to cure people, but rather to be there to support them in times of need. Don’t feel too guilty if you ever have to take a step back to focus on your own needs.

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