What Should You Do If You Suspect a Friend Or Loved One Has a Mental Health Problem?

Mental health problems are common and knowing someone with one is even more common. However, it can be difficult to recognize a mental health problem in a friend, family member, or colleague, and know what to do if they are unwell. Common mental health problems include depression, anxiety disorders (such as panic disorder or social phobia), and substance abuse or dependence.

Do you suspect a loved one may have a mental health problem? Are you afraid of saying the wrong thing? Should you ‘force’ them to seek help from a health professional? What about if they are feeling suicidal? Although people often know a lot about physical health problems, many don’t know much about mental illnesses or how to be supportive. Your support is important because people may be afraid to ask for help from loved ones in case they receive a negative reaction. Seeking help early can lessen the impact of the problem and can prevent other problems from occurring. In order to teach members of the public how to help someone with a mental health problem, a team of researchers developed the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) program. The program has spread to 15 countries, and teaches the symptoms, causes and treatments for mental disorders, as well as what actions to take to help someone who may have a mental disorder. These actions do not replace the help from a professional, but are similar to physical first aid given before an ambulance arrives. The program covers what to do for a variety of mental disorders, including depression, panic attacks, psychosis, problem drinking, eating disorders, and self-harm.

MHFA has these tips for helping a loved one you suspect has depression:

  • talk to them about how they are feeling at a time and place where you both feel comfortable
  • let them know that you are concerned and want to help
  • listen to them without interrupting and don’t be judgmental
  • give them information about depression and provide hope for recovery
  • ask them if they need help to manage how they are feeling, and if so, discuss options for professional help
  • Don’t say things like “you don’t seem that bad to me”, or “you just need to get your act together” and don’t blame them for their depression

Printable guidelines on how to help someone with a mental health problem can be downloaded from the MHFA Australia website.