How to tell when a friend may be struggling with their mental health

Much progress has been made in recent years to shift the stigma away from mental health. But some people do still find it difficult to talk about their feelings. In fact, only one third of people experiencing mental health problems seek help.

If you have a friend or a family member who has been acting differently recently, it might be that they’re struggling with their mental health. Here are some of the common signs.

Withdrawing

Have you been getting fewer messages from someone recently? Have they stopped showing up to social occasions or are they harder to get hold of? It may be that they’ve got a lot on, but it may be that they’re not feeling themselves. You may be reluctant to keep trying to get in touch if you’re getting nothing back, and while bombarding them with messages isn’t helpful, don’t give up on them. it may be that they want to chat but are struggling to find the words.

Using more alcohol or drugs

If you are close to someone who has increased their drinking or drug-taking, it could be a red flag that they’re struggling with their mental health. Raising the issue could cause the person to feel embarrassed and react defensively. Avoid being too confrontational or using words like ‘alcoholic’ or ‘addict’. Choose a moment when you’re relaxed to ask how they’re doing and, more importantly, don’t bring it up while either of you are under the influence.

Changing eating habits

Losing or gaining weight quickly, or having difficulties around food, can be a sign of depression or anxiety. Talking to someone about their eating or weight can be a very sensitive issue, so you might want to get some advice yourself first. The Beat Eating Disorders website has some useful information. You might want to keep the conversation more general at first – ‘how are you feeling at the moment?’ is less confronting than ‘I notice you’ve lost a lot of weight quite quickly’. Also pick your moment and avoid talking about it around mealtimes: if they are developing an eating disorder their anxiety levels are likely to be higher at these times.

Tiredness or changes in sleep patterns

If someone you know has suddenly started sleeping in late, or is struggling to sleep, they might be feeling low or anxious. There are steps we can all take to improve our sleep, such as reducing phone use at night, keeping regular hours and avoiding caffeine and large meals late in the evening. But this person may have other issues going on, so a chat about how they’re feeling might not go amiss.

Other behavioural changes

Mental health problems can manifest in many different ways, and any significant changes in behaviour could be an indication that someone needs support. Of course, it’s possible that these changes are completely unrelated to a deeper problem, so keep an open mind. Feeling ‘watched’ could make the other person feel anxious, so rather than flagging up unusual behaviour every time you notice it, be observant and pick an appropriate time to have a chat.

‘Yes, I have a problem…’

If your friend or family member does tell you they have a problem, be aware that they could be worried about your reaction. You might feel shocked, scared, even frustrated that they haven’t spoken to you sooner. But try and react sensitively. It’s completely natural for you to need some time to process it too. And remember, the fact that they’re telling you about it now means they’ve made their first step towards taking control.

If your friend or family member is in crisis, it’s important that they get professional help from their local GP. The NHS website has some useful signposting for other organisations that can help.