Thriving Together Series: How to Help a Friend with a Mental Health Concern

Thriving Together friend mental health

Image credit: Total Shape – https://totalshape.com/

By: Patrice Levinson, MSN, FNP-C, Family Nurse Practitioner, Student Health Services

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.” – Fred Rogers

Mental health problems – especially depression and anxiety – are common. Many people don’t know the signs (seen or heard by others) and symptoms (experienced by the person affected) of mental illnesses. Here’s how to help a friend who may be struggling with a mental health concern, through Mental Health First Aid® (MHFA) training.

Consider this scenario: Your roommate Emily is sleeping excessively. She is not going to class. When you invite her to Ike’s to eat dinner together, she declines – and this happens every single time you invite her to go out. You think your roommate might be depressed, but you’re not sure what to say or how to start a conversation about mental health.

People often don’t know how to recognize the signs of mental health problems. If they do, they are not sure what to say in response. In the scenario with your roommate, you may wonder, “Am I reading into this? Will my roommate talk to me about this? What if I say the wrong thing? I’m not sure what resources are available to students on campus. Shouldn’t I know more before I start a conversation about mental health?”

All these questions are common and valid. Since 2014, Mason has offered the 8-hour certification in MHFA training for faculty, staff, and students to address these types of concerns and to encourage all of us to feel comfortable asking difficult questions about mental health.

What we see at Student Health Services (SHS) is that students seeking care for mental health concerns often refer themselves for care. However, most people with mental health problems often do not seek help. Why is that? Also, why is it important? Often people are unaware of the symptoms of mental illness. They know that they sleep a lot, but sometimes that’s been going on so long, they feel that it’s normal for them. Sometimes, they develop coping strategies to deal with the symptoms. Some of those self-care behaviors are helpful – like exercise, meditation, journaling. Other behaviors are not helpful and can lead to even more problems. This is important because studies show that the earlier a person is diagnosed with and treated for a mental health problem, the shorter the time the disease interferes in their ability to work, to succeed in school, and to engage in meaningful relationships.

What about stigma? Mental illnesses are indeed associated with stigma. Stigma from society, from community, from family and from the person themselves (self-stigma). Stigma often prevents a person from seeking professional help for a developing mental illness. Although professional help is often not readily available, Mason tries to reduce the stigma surrounding seeking help by offering empathetic mental health services and referrals in multiple departments across campus. Learn more about those in our resources section at the end of this article.

An Example Conversation to Start Discussing Mental Health

Let’s return to the roommate scenario. Here’s a conversation you can try to start addressing mental health concerns:

“Hey, Em. I notice that you’re sleeping a lot lately and that you’re not going to class. I’m concerned about you, and I want you to know that I’m here if you want to talk.” … “I know there are counselors at Mason, if you’re up for that and want to talk with a professional. I’m happy to help you make the call or walk over to SUB-1 with you when you’re ready.” … “Please let me know how I can help. I care about you.”

As you talk with someone you are concerned about, it’s vital to try to give them hope. The 2020 edition of the Mental Health First Aid Adult Manual from the National Council for Behavioral Health states: “Hope – the belief that these challenges and conditions can be overcome – is the foundation of recovery. The role you play in fostering hope may be the most valuable contribution you can make in supporting someone in a mental health crisis.”

A Mason Course Featuring MHFA Training

Since 2017, Mason MHFA instructors and UNIV Courses and Programs offer Mental Health First Aid® training and certification via UNIV 372, a 1-Credit (0-Credit option available) half-semester course. Patrice Levinson, SHS, along with Katie Clare, CWB, are certified Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) instructors who developed and implemented this course offering the 8-hour MHFA training with certification to undergraduate students at Mason.

Here are some student testimonials about the UNIV 372 course:

  • “I was 1-credit short of graduating and this course looked interesting. I was surprised by the amount of information about mental health and mental illness that is not readily available to the public.”
  • “Taking this class helped me to become more accepting of my own personal struggles with mental illness. I used to think my depression and anxiety were my own fault.”
  • “Thinking things through and writing the role-play scenario made me realize how important it is for me to have learned the skills taught by this class.”
  • “The ALGEE® acronym gives me a framework for knowing what questions to ask and emphasizes the importance of listening.”
  • “I was surprised to learn that mental illnesses can be more disabling for people than some cancers.”

Additional Resources

In addition to Mental Health First Aid, Mason’s mental health resources include:

Other helpful resources include:

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Lifeline Crisis Chat: crisischat.org
  • Crisis Text Line: Text MHFA to 74141

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