Being a teen comes with many challenges, and teens struggling with mental health are not uncommon. In fact, 1 in 5 teens has had a mental health challenge that impacted their daily lives at some point. That means, if you have four friends, someone in your group has probably struggled.
Even though it’s common, it can be hard to know what to do or say to a friend who is having a hard time. It might even seem easier to just ignore it for fear of making it worse or saying something wrong. But please know that just being there and talking to your friend about it is the best thing you can do for them.
Below are some steps to navigate your way through helping a friend with a mental health crisis.
1. Know That You Are Already on the Right Track
The first step in helping a friend in a mental health crisis is noticing that something might be wrong. If you are here reading this, you probably already noticed something is off. You know your friend. Any big changes in their habits or personality may be a sign of a mental health struggle. This is especially true if your friend is going through something stressful, such as being bullied, family problems, or a breakup.
Some major warning signs of a teen in distress include:
- Being less social than usual
- Doing risky things, like using drugs or alcohol, driving very recklessly, or having unprotected sex
- Being aggressive, violent, or threatening others
- Talking about feeling worthless, hopeless, or trapped
- Big drops in interest or performance in school
- Big changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Talking about death or wanting to die
2. Simply Show Up
When someone is really struggling, it can be hard for them to remember that they have friends who love and support them. Now is the time to make the extra effort to remind them that you care, you are there for them, and you want them in your life.
Invite them to spend time with you, even if it’s to do nothing at all. Be sure to include them in your social activities. Little things like texting, “Just thinking about you!” or a random Facetime chat can go a long way.
3. Ask Them
Another part of showing that you care about your friend is not ignoring what you see. It can be as simple as asking, “How are you doing lately?” If they’ve gone through a stressful experience recently, you might say, “I’ve been thinking about you since XXX happened. How are you?” You might also say something like, “I’ve noticed you’ve seemed a bit down.”
Wait until you are in one-on-one rather than in a group of friends to speak with them. Stay calm, and make sure to stay away from blaming them or accusing them of anything. Know that they may or may not share exactly how they are feeling, and that’s OK. If you stay non-judgmental and continue to just show up, be kind, and spend time with them, they may eventually share what is bothering them.
4. Do More Listening Than Talking
It can be scary to ask friends about their mental health for fear of not knowing what to say or how to help. However, it’s actually more important to be a good listener than to know the exact right thing to say. In fact, most of the time, people who are going through a rough time aren’t expecting someone to “fix it.” It’s more important to be heard and understood.
Most importantly, keep a non-judgmental stance and don’t try to cheer them up by saying that what they are going through “isn’t that bad.” Even if you think you are right or giving good advice, it can come off as minimizing their pain. If you don’t know what to say, try something simple like, “I’m so sorry you are hurting. Thank you for telling me.”
5. Be Sincere
Friends know when friends are being honest. It might feel right to try to shower your friend with compliments to make them feel better. And it’s true — sharing what you love and appreciate about a friend is a great way to support them when they are feeling down. But only share things that you really do feel. Saying something you don’t actually believe can come off as patronizing.
Sticking to honesty is easy — you can start by sharing why it is you’ve chosen them as a friend.
6. Help Them Find a Safe Adult
If your friend hasn’t told their parents or another safe adult how they are feeling, help them to find one to talk to. If your friend doesn’t feel safe talking to their parents, other options might be a teacher, coach, aunt or uncle, pastor, or family friend. From there, they can get connected with a therapist or doctor.
7. Know That Having Concern Is Different Than Having Responsibility
It’s good to care about and have concern for your friends. However, your friend’s health is not your responsibility nor a burden you must hold. Never agree to keep it a secret if your friend is thinking about hurting themselves, someone else, or if you are worried about their safety. Let them know that their life is so important to you that you couldn’t keep a secret that might harm them.
Even if your friend gets mad at you, you are doing the right thing by helping them stay safe and get help. You can be there as a friend, but only a doctor or therapist can give them the full help they need.
If you or a friend are thinking about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for immediate help from a professional.
In case of a medical emergency, please call 911. For a child’s mental health emergency (ages 3 to 17), call Clarity Child Guidance Center at 210-582-6412. Our crisis service department accepts walk-ins 24/7. You can find directions to our campus here. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us. We are here to help!