Campus Queries: What can I do if I’m worried about a friend’s mental health?
(Lily Lee / Daily Bruin)
By Shruti Iyer
Oct. 6, 2020 9:03 p.m.
Campus Queries is a series in which Daily Bruin readers and staff present science-related questions for UCLA professors and experts to answer.
Q: How can I support a friend who may be experiencing mental illness?
A: Check in if you notice something is off, listen to concerns they may have, offer your support, including directing the student to other resources on campus like Counseling and Psychological Services, Resilience in your Student Experience Center and the Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center, said Jasmine Tilghman, a licensed psychologist at CAPS.
Because of the sometimes uncomfortable conversations that arise in relation to mental health, some people choose to hide the fact that they are going through difficult times, said Zach Westerbeck, a mental health advocate for college students in Southern California.
“One of the biggest issues today is that the majority of people don’t seek help because of the stigma, which means that they deliberately choose not to share or expose how they’re feeling,” Westerbeck said. “So it can be difficult from the outside to see that somebody is really struggling internally if that’s how they choose to act.”
Tilghman, who is also the assistant director of mental health training, intervention, & response at RISE, said the top four mental health concerns for a student include anxiety, depression, stress and sleep. Students may identify symptoms like social isolation, anger, lack of sleep, missing class or missing assignments, Tilghman said.
However, noticing symptoms is not a diagnosis, Westerbeck said. Rather, they present an opportunity to start a conversation about mental health.
Tilghman said a student can show support by asking how a person is feeling and bringing up some of the changes they have noticed in the person.
Opening up and sharing what one is feeling or experiencing can be a big challenge, Tilghman said. However, if the listener seems to pass judgment or dismiss feelings, this can discourage the person from seeking further support, she added.
People should not use phrases that pose judgment or insensitivity, such as, “You’re so weak,” “Get over it,” or “Therapy is only for crazy people,” Tilghman added.
One way a person can create a safe and comfortable environment for someone to open up is to be vulnerable first and show the other person that they can be vulnerable too, Westerbeck said.
People should avoid coming into a conversation with any judgment or trying to diagnose a person, especially if they’re not a trained professional, Westerbeck said. Giving the person a reason for why they feel the way they feel, doubting what they feel or rushing through a conversation can be harmful, he added.
“Trying to diagnose somebody and tell them how they’re feeling is really irresponsible and can be dangerous because if they listen to you and they start to downplay their own emotions, (those emotions) can intensify and get worse secretly,” Westerbeck said. “And because you had a conversation that was judgmental they no longer come to you.”
Once someone recognizes that they or another person might be experiencing a mental illness, they should seek or suggest professional help, said Westerbeck, who is also Mental Health First Aid certified. However, one should not force others into a session with a professional, he added.
“This comes from the Mental Health First Aid guide: You can never force somebody to seek help, they have to go and seek that help on their own time, you can only encourage that behavior,” Westerbeck said. “Offer to schedule an appointment, offer to make the process of seeking help easier.”
It is important for people to create a support system around themselves, Westerbeck said. Those dealing with mental health concerns often feel alone and building a supportive community can be very helpful, he said.
If one notices that the support system around a person isn’t right, they should let the person know what their concerns are, Tilghman said.
“If you are concerned about a friend’s safety, let them know, but also let someone else know you are concerned so you have even more support and feel less alone in helping others,” Tilghman said.
The support group can consist of close friends or family members, Tilghman said.
Bringing up the conversation of mental health with family can be stressful for someone experiencing mental illness, Tilghman said.
“You (could) attempt to have conversations about where they learned their beliefs about mental health,” Tilghman said.
However, if continued attempts and efforts to gain support from family are unsuccessful, people should seek support from other people through resources like the LGBTQ Campus Resource Center, Student Organizations, Leadership & Engagement, the Bruin Resource Center, Healing Spaces for Black students run by RISE or another organization a person may identify with, Tilghman said.
Westerbeck said it is important that people understand that feeling anxiety, depression and other conditions doesn’t make a person weird or weak. It simply makes them a person experiencing diagnosable medical conditions, he said.
Tilghman said she wants students to know that there are many resources available to them.
“It’s important to remember you are not alone, either seeking help for yourself or for others,” Tilghman said.
Concerned students can call the CAPS 24-hour phone line for any advice related to care for themselves or others or 9-1-1 for emergencies, Tilghman said.