Mates are there for each other in the good times, and the bad times. Being there for a mate in the good times is usually easy and enjoyable. But when a mate goes through a rough patch, it can be hard to know what to do or say. This can be particularly challenging if your friend is not just having a bad day, but experiencing a mental health difficulty.
This section outlines some of the signs that show if your mate needs help, places to go to understand what they’re going through, and some of the things you can do, to give them a hand.
How can you tell if they need help?
Even if you think you know someone, it can sometimes be hard to tell how much emotional pain they are in and whether they need help.
Often, it’s something small that can make you think something isn’t quite right – and more often than not, that hunch will be right.
What to look for
People aren’t always upfront about the things that are bothering them, especially when it involves a mental health issue, even with their best mates. Signs to watch for in your mate:
- Don't want to see their friends or no longer enjoy spending time with their friends and family
- Stop doing things they used to love or don't seem to be enjoying themselves
- Can't remember things, concentrate, or pay attention
- Feel bad about themselves – guilty, worthless or ashamed
- Have a big change in their eating patterns or appetite
- Have extreme mood swings
- Feel hopeless or really sad, or cry a lot
- Feel anxious, stressed, nervous or scared a lot and can't seem to relax
- Are not happy unless they're using drugs or alcohol
- Don't take care of their appearance or personal hygiene
- Have physical signs of injury or that they are hurting themselves
- Have panic attacks – rapid heartbeat, unable to breathe, feeling dizzy and extremely scared or anxious all at once.
What can you do to help?
There are some simple steps you can take to look after your mates, regardless of what challenges they may be facing.
These steps are sometimes called ‘Mental Health First Aid’, and can be remembered using the simple acronym REACT. Click on each letter below to see the steps:
Recognise symptoms of mental health difficulties
If you know your mates well, you’ll spot any change in their usual behaviour, which is often the first sign of a mental health problem. Other symptoms of mental health difficulties can include physical reactions like nausea, sweating or shaking; thinking reactions like poor concentration or negativity; behavioural changes like disrupted sleep, excessive drinking/smoking or increased aggression; and emotional reactions like sadness, anger or anxiety.
Engage the person
After you’ve recognised something that could be a symptom, engage with your mate. Talk to them – for example, you might say “I’ve noticed X, Y and Z, are you ok?” Have this conversation in a private environment if possible, just be yourself and listen to them.
Once you have engaged, you need to actively listen. Active listening involves both hearing and accurately understanding what the speaker has said.
Your job during this step is to listen to your mate, reflect back what you are hearing and clarify any differences - “so it sounds like you’re feeling angry because of XYZ, am I right?”.
Allow your mate time to vent if need be, and don’t be afraid to allow some silence in your conversation – sometimes people need silence in order to think.
This is not the time to argue with them, tell them you know how they feel, or try to solve their problems. Simply listen, reflect and clarify.
Check suicide risk and risk of harm to others
If, after engaging and actively listening, you are at all concerned that your mate is at risk of suicide, self-harm or harm to other people, you need to ask them about it directly. For example, ask your mate “Have you been thinking about suicide?”.
If they are considering suicide or self-harm, they must be taken to a doctor for assessment.
If they are considering harming others, the police need to be involved. In both cases you need to remove any threats (e.g. firearms) when and where it’s safe to do so. You should never agree to keep secrets or leave them alone if they are in crisis.
If your mate is not suicidal or homicidal, and you are no longer concerned about their mental health, you might choose to simply monitor them. However, if you think they would benefit from support, help them take the next step to see some professional advice and care.
Where they can get help
Recommend they see their doctor
If you feel comfortable about it, perhaps you could offer to be with them for the appointment.
Suggest they call helpline or a counsellor
For some people, simply talking to someone independent can be the best first step.
They can call a helpline or counsellor. For example: Our NZDF helpline 0800 NZDF 4 U, Lifeline (0800 543 354), Crisis Support Services (0508 828 865) or Men’s Line (0800 636 754).
Don’t hesitate, if they are in immediate danger, call 111 immediately.
Find out what they are going through
It can really help you and your mate, if you know what they’re going through,
We have lots of information here on this website about different problems and mental health issues, faced by members of the NZDF and their families, have a read and school yourself up before you talk again.