To begin, thank you for being a good friend. Though many institutions and media outlets are doing their best to normalize mental health and mental illness, the negative stigma around these issues still remain.

So, how do you approach your friend? Do so in a closed setting, alone where your friend feels comfortable. This could be at someone’s home, or in a quiet room at the library – avoid the cafeteria or coffee shop where people can overhear the conversation, or the school washroom where someone might walk in unexpectedly. Second, be prepared to listen without judgment. When a person experiencing mental unwellness opens up, he/she is not necessarily looking for advice. Your role is starting the conversation and providing reassurance as someone who genuinely cares.

If they don’t want to open up, you can keep the door open by saying, “Whenever you’re ready, know that I’m here for you.” If your friend does open up, be careful to let your friend share on their terms. Refrain from interrupting their flow of thought or agreeing with their statements, nor disagree with their statements.

During the conversation your friend may ask for advice. When responding, avoid statements such as, “I know what you’re going through” or “A friend of mind went through exactly the same thing”, because these types of statements take away from the value and unique experience of what your friend is sharing. When asked, you can certainly provide advice if you see fit, and more effective than giving advice is:

  • Summarizing their thoughts to show you are listening, such as, “So this is what I’m hearing…” or “I hear that you feel…about…am I close?” or “You appear to have mixed feelings about…am I understanding your concerns?”
  • Asking questions so your friend can feel a sense of self-resilience. Examples include, “How does it make you feel when…” or “What is in your control that you have the ability to change?” or “Can you give me an example of what you mean by…”

Again, remember that you and I are not therapists. At some point in the conversation it is important to advise your friend to reach out to qualified individuals who can provide long term support. This could be their school guidance counsellor (also available at college and university), or their family doctor who can provide a referral to a social worker or psychologist. If your friend is hesitant, perhaps you can tap into some online supports with them: the Khalil Center in Toronto (416-901-2244), Naseeha Mental Health (1-866-627-3342), Sound Vision Crisis Text (text SALAM to 741741), Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868), or download and use the BigWhiteWall app (bigwhitewall.ca).

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