This piece was written by an external contributor. Lucy Skoulding identifies the tell-tale signs that your housemate might be dealing with mental illness and how best to help them.
Have you ever felt like you really want to help someone, but don’t know how? Mental illnesses are complicated, especially at university. Sometimes people don’t want to accept they have one, or even realise they do. Sometimes they want to hide it. Sometimes they are desperate to ask for help, but don’t know where to start.
There are different ways to help a friend suffering from a mental health problem. Just remember everyone is different, so you need to be adaptive. It is useful to understand more about mental illness before you step in. Here is what a mental illness might look like, and how you could approach helping someone who is suffering.
Constantly feeling anxious, worried, or nervous
A friend who is always worried or stressed might have anxiety. We all feel scared in certain situations, but anxiety-sufferers experience feelings which interfere with their lives. A friend of mine was so worried about doing well at uni, that she eventually stopped going to classes or meeting deadlines. Feelings can also manifest in physical symptoms like shortness of breath, headaches, and nausea.
How you can help: Letting your friend know you are there for them is more helpful than you can imagine. Anxiety-sufferers can find it hard to reach out to others, but they often just want someone to talk to. Ensure they can always reach you, and try to find time for them if they ask for it. Be forgiving if your friend is withdrawn or angry, and positive if they become pessimistic.
Lacking motivation and feeling unhappy
Take notice if your friend has stopped doing an activity they love or acting like their usual selves. This may indicate depression. Other symptoms are difficulty sleeping, shutting themselves away, lacking energy, and being teary or angry.
How you can help: Ask them what is causing their behaviour change, rather than directly bringing up mental health. If you can identify a cause you can suggest ways to tackle negative feelings about it. If your friend cannot identify one cause, encourage them to keep busy by suggesting they pick that hobby back up. Regular meet-ups will make it more likely for your friend to open up to you.
Dramatic appetite changes
Extreme changes in eating habits could indicate an eating disorder. Signs can be hard to spot, so start by asking yourself questions. Has your friend started eating lots more or less than usual? Are they secretive or obsessive about what, where, and when they eat? Are they an unhealthy weight?
How you can help: It’s tough if your friend tries to hide changes, so be attentive to small things, but do not be accusing. Asking ‘why are you not eating again?’ might be harmful if your friend is not ready to talk. Let them open-up to you, and in the meantime mention good sources to learn about mental illness, and places to go to get help or advice, such as a Night Line service.
Extreme emotional instability and mood changes
We all have mood swings, but if you start to feel as if you can never predict your friend’s mood anymore or they frequently have outbursts of extreme emotion, mental illness might be the cause.
How you can help: If your friend keeps having mood changes, bring this up with them but be sensitive and let them know they can talk to you. If they have an emotional outburst, calm them down and prevent them from acting irrationally, for instance don’t let them drive. Your friend may not know they have a mental illness, and confusion over why they feel as they do might be causing their anger or worry. Offer to help them research it or to go with them to a professional.
Withdrawal and isolation
Withdrawal might be a sign your friend has a mental health issue, such as depression, bipolar, or a psychotic disorder. Shutting themselves away and refusing to participate in social activities or attend usual commitments, such as work or university classes, are typical signs.
How you can help: This is a pretty easy one to notice. If you haven’t seen your friend in class for the past few weeks, get in contact with them, and ask if they want to meet up. Isolation gives the sufferer more time to think about how they feel, and less chances to talk to others about it, so encourage them to meet with you, or offer to visit them at home.
Just because someone seems happy, this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of depression. Smiling Depression is when someone appears happy on the outside and is literally smiling, while internally experiencing depressive symptoms. Sometimes the sufferer doesn’t even realise this is happening.
How you can help: You need to be super attentive to detail in these cases. If your friend speaks about their feelings and they seem more unhappy than they are acting, bring this up and check they are okay. Smiling Depression can be particularly dangerous because sufferers keep feelings pent up. Mental illness will not just go away, and the longer it is left undealt with, the worse it could get.
This is a serious and urgent problem. If your friend is reliant on alcohol or repeatedly drinks large amounts, they might have an addiction which is a result of or contributor to depression. The same is true of drugs.
How you can help: Substance abuse could be harmful or even fatal, so act urgently if you are worried. You don’t have to manage this alone, so seek some medical advice and encourage your friend to book an appointment with a professional. Getting the balance right is important. Avoid going behind your friend’s back if possible as they might lose trust in you, but do act in some way as your friend is at risk of overdosing.
Being self-critical and feeling worthless
This is a big red flag. If a friend is constantly criticising themselves, maybe calling themselves worthless or a failure, this could be a symptom of depression. It is dangerous behaviour because someone who really hates themselves may try to hurt themselves.
How you can help: Engage your friend in a conversation about how they are feeling and try getting them to talk to you about how they deal with these emotions. Suggest your friend books an appointment with a professional as this could be quite serious. You could also help your friend learn the importance of self-care, perhaps by booking a pampering session, cooking a delicious meal together, or organising a fun activity.
This is the only instance when you cannot necessarily adhere to what your friend is asking. If your friend has spoken about harming themselves, or shows you they have already harmed themselves, you need to seek urgent medical attention, or even an ambulance dependent on the situation.
How you can help: You may feel terrified of going against your friend’s wishes, but remember their health is the most important thing. Suicidal people are not thinking rationally, meaning they may not agree with your actions in the moment, but they will eventually realise you did what you had to.
It’s important to remember you are trying your best for your friend, so don’t blame yourself for anything. You need to look after yourself too. Ignoring a problem is never the answer, but equally you don’t have to handle anything alone. Find support, whether that be from family members or friends, tutors or colleagues, or medical professionals.