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5 Ways to Support Your 'Strong Friend' When They Are Struggling

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Long before I became a mental health advocate, I have always been the “strong friend.” As long as I can remember, I have always wanted to support people through the darkest, hardest and most complicated parts of their life. And I wanted to do that by listening, validating and of course making them laugh. This meant that I was often thought of as “invincible.” I didn’t react or cringe at the difficult things my friends told me, so people thought I was doing fine.

When I started speaking openly about my mental health, my small group of friends who I supported grew. All of sudden people who I hardly knew, and even strangers wanted my help. I didn’t blame them either — our mental health system is so completely screwed up that you try everything and everyone to find the thing resource for you. I tried my best to hold all the stories, requests and things being given to me, but it inevitably got to me.

I kept thinking how so many people deal with so many more requests for support and resources. I kept thinking that struggling with all these things might mean I was a failure, and that I didn’t deserve to take up the limited space that existed at mental health organizations. I kept telling myself I had to deal with it alone and not burden other folks with it. Strangely enough, I fell victim to all the stigmatized beliefs that I was advising people against but in a slightly different way. Eventually, it got bad enough that I decided to use the network of mental health support I built for everyone else for myself and got help. But my experience with this has shown me how easy it is to fall into the trap of not asking for support or help as a strong friend.

A few months ago, after the unfortunate deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain and more recently Mac Miller, social media encouraged people “check in on their strong friend.” It made me wonder — what would be helpful for me as a strong friend? Here are some things my friends and community do for me that help me be vulnerable and reach out as a strong friend:

1. Ask how they are doing.

It might seem obvious, but I have a lot conversations where I support and validate someone through a rant for a long time before they have space to ask me how I am doing. It makes it really hard to be honest with how I am doing if I am reflecting on how hard life is right now for the person I am talking to. Remembering to ask this at the beginning of a conversation might help your strong friend give an honest answer.

2. Remind them you are there for them.

Even if they are fine, happy, silly, whatever. Frequently reminding folks that you are happy to talk to them about hard stuff they are going through creates the space and permission to do so if they ever need it.

3. Remind them it’s OK to have boundaries.

So often I would sit through conversations with friends that were triggering or harmful for me to listen to. Nothing wrong with that person needing to talk about that thing, but I just wasn’t the right person to be there for them. If a friend tells you they can’t be a support for you because the thing you are going through is triggering or hard for them, it’s totally valid to be upset by that at first. But it’s important to respect that boundary and let them know you are proud of them for taking care of themselves.

4. Work to find mental health resources for yourself.

If you are really struggling and relying a lot on one or two friends for support, that OK. It happens and it’s hard to find mental health support. Your friends might never tell you this — because they love you and genuinely want to support you — but it’s important that your care team grows to include professionals (whether its volunteers at text crisis line, peer supporters, distress line workers, therapists and/or doctors). It’s important to tell your friends how your feeling, but equally important to make sure you have a team of amazing humans supporting you.

5. Encourage them to take time for themselves.

I would often explain to people how many folks were talking to me about their stuff and people were always shocked. They knew I was taking on too much before I did. Remind your friends who help others that it’s OK to take breaks, take space and do something that refreshes them. Sometimes that also means they talk to a mental health professional — that’s what it meant for me — and that’s OK. Even if we are “high-functioning,” we are worthy and deserving of space on a mental health professionals case load.

I would love to hear from other strong friends about how people can check in on you in the comments below!

Unsplash photo via Felipe Bustillo

Originally published: January 20, 2019
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