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3 Things to Avoid When Helping a Friend with Mental Illness

By: Leah Hovey

Suffering from a mental illness can be hard enough without the sharp criticism, stigma, and disdain from others. When an individual experiences stigma around their mental illness, they can experience a vast amount of emotions including negative self-esteem, anger or diminished self-efficacy (Corrigan & Watson, 2002). Psychiatrists have been examining the consequences of stigma on their patients and have found that it plays a severe role in self-esteem and peer relations (Byrne, 2000).

When mental illness becomes a large concern, it can be difficult for friends to understand what you are going through and even harder to talk to you about it.

Knowing the negative impact poor peer-support has on an individual, we want to focus on what we can do to help a friend if they are experiencing mental health issues. Here are 3 things to avoid when supporting a friend with mental illness:

1. Avoid minimizing a friend’s mental illness or comparing their feelings to yours.

Having the courage to tell a friend what is going on with one's mental health takes a HUGE amount of trust, effort and bravery. As a friend, immediately comparing their feelings to yours by trying to create a similarity between the two is not always helpful. There are times when sharing similar stories can help by making a friend feel like they are not alone, but trying to compare their feelings with yours may be unfair. No one’s emotions are the same. Minimizing what an individual is going through can be unproductive peer support. Everyone is suffering through hardships and we cannot compare one hardship to another. To support an friend in a time of need, practice unconditional positive regard and offer support and empathy to their emotional experience.

2. Avoid disregarding a friend’s mental illness because you don't understand it.

Maybe mental health or disorders are completely new to you. Maybe this is the first time you have ever come across someone who is open about their mental illness. It can be hard to know what to say when this is a subject matter you have never dealt with before. It is not a bad thing to not understand mental health thoroughly, however that is why we learn. By simply ignoring a friend or quickly trying to change the subject for fear of saying the wrong thing or for fear of what they are saying can be unhelpful to a friend. If you are confused, ask questions, listen, and see what they have to say. Just having a friend care enough to learn more or talk with you about it is better than nothing.

3. Avoid trying to stop their process. If you are uncomfortable, tell them.

LISTEN. This is the biggest problem when faced with peer conflict surrounding mental illness. Giving advice is not a bad thing inherently, however it may not be the right advice. Instead, focusing on listening and allowing your friend to speak may be enough. A good psychological technique one can used to practice listening is the process of active listening. This is a step by step process that involves attending to what is said to you, repeating the important information back to your friend in your own words and asking if you fully understood that, and then responding to what they have said (Worthington, 2016). Listening and allowing a friend to talk about what is going on will help more than any advice one could give.

For more information about active listening, click here:


Byrne, P. (2000). Stigma of mental illness and ways of diminishing it. Advances in Psychiatric treatment, 6(1), 65-72.

Corrigan, P. W., & Watson, A. C. (2002). The paradox of self‐stigma and mental illness. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 9(1), 35-53.

Worthington, D. (2016). Listening: Processes, Functions and Competency. New York: Routledge. p. 87. ISBN 9780132288545.

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