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Mental Health Week: What can I do to give support as a concerned friend?

Wing Kuang

Tue Oct 10 2017


Positive support from loved ones is an essential component for all individuals wishing to overcome any negative mental health conditions. But peer support is not as easy as one might imagine. Indeed it does require one’s empathy and concern to simply ‘be there’ for your friend or loved one, but it also requires a bit of tact and strategy too.

For international students with concerns over a friend, peer or loved one’s mental wellbeing, Meld consulted Camilo Izquierdo, a counsellor at Trinity College Foundation Studies, who has had professional experience in offering guidance to mentally vulnerable international students. 

We’ve compiled Camilo’s answers and insights as a student counsellor and have turned it as a guide for international students who want to do all they can to try and assist others. 

What are the common mental health conditions that international students may experience?

Common mental health conditions for international students include:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Eating disorder
  • Trauma possibly caused by an international student’s negative experience in Australia (sexual abuse, domestic/gender violence, and even crime)
  • Other issues such as substance use, which are less prevalent/common than other mental conditions, yet an important area of concern amongst international students

Why is it important for international students to have appropriate understanding of mental health peer support?

Research shows that when people are in their communities and get accurate information about mental health there, they are less likely to discriminate health issues, and less likely to consider mental health suffering as a stigma. Also, people are more likely to seek help if they receive information from their communities.

On the other hand, research also shows that international students are more likely to seek help first from their peers rather than health professionals or school staff. If we already know international students are more likely to talk to their peer first, they should be tapping into it much more than what we do currently.

After all, the more information available to people with mental health suffering, the more likely they’ll be able and more willing to seek help earlier. And hopefully, by means of getting help earlier, their chances to have a better recovery can be improved.

What should I look for, if I feel a friend may be suffering from mental health conditions?

Mental health conditions develop over time, and they are usually reflected through people’s change in thinking, feeling and acting. If you notice that your friend has had significant changes — this includes reducing time hanging out or socialising with people, eating or sleeping less or more than before, or having bad performance at school — you should start to keep an eye on them.

If several changes are found spontaneously and last for a period, you should start to check on your friend and ask if everything is okay so far.

What should I do if my friend tells me that they are suffering from mental health conditions?

We always need to be careful about this, as all suggestions should be case by case. However, there are still some basics that we can apply.

Be calm: It’s very important that the helpers are calm. If the helpers appear to be anxious and stressed or not in control at all, the peers may also feel anxious.

Don’t judge: It is quite likely that your friend has taken lots of effort to speak up about their mental health conditions, and if they get a response that makes them feel judged, that would basically and most likely be the end of their help-seeking. Particularly, you should avoid referring to any mental health conditions in conversations, as they might not be accurate.

Be emphatic, and show your support: Let them know that they are doing right in telling you about their situations, and let them know that they are cared about. Your support and emphasis of togetherness sometimes can mean a lot to those who are mentally suffering.

Know your resources: Peers can be the first response of providing help, however, it can only be for short term. What’s more important is to help your friend with mental health conditions continue to seek help in particular from professionals. Professionals can be your school counsellors or local psychologists who are qualified and experienced in providing appropriate treatments that can help your friends to pull through tough times. For the safety of both your friends and yourself, you should learn about your resources as well as local medical and psychological services such as clinics, school counselling and general practitioners. When your friend asks you for help, you should share your information of these resources and local services to your friend, and encourage them to seek professional help.

Give options, and respect: When encouraging your friend to pursue further help, be careful that you are speaking in a way that shows you’re providing options rather than demanding, and let them know that you are happy to go with them if they want. Also, don’t directly talk about your friend’s situations with their teachers and parents, but encourage your friends to speak to them about their conditions.

Take action immediately when suicidal ideation is indicated: Not all suicidal talk is a sign that people will commit suicide immediately, but every conversation about suicide needs to be taken very seriously. If anybody talks about suicide, they need to be really connected with appropriate professional help for further assessment. If your friend reveals suicidal ideation when talking to you, you must take action immediately.  

After the conversation, what else can I do?

Be with them, always: Check on your friend frequently to make them realise that they are not alone, while continuing to encourage your friend to seek professional help.

Bring them out: Help your friend to be more active and supported within the wider community.Encourage your friend to join some exercise clubs, interest groups or a community with social support. Encourage them not only to have appropriate professional help, but also to engage in behaviour that will do them well, such as sports and social activities.

If possible, get training: In Australia, there are courses and programs that provide opportunities for people from the community to get a lot of information, as in how to help those who are mentally suffering. These training opportunities are usually provided by reputable organisations that can teach you how to help your peers, and it usually only takes one to two days. Accepting professional training as a peer can be very helpful for you to support your friends more effectively.

Meld wishes to build a culture where mental health issues can be freely discussed and encourage all international students to seek assistance and advice, professional or personal, if they are experiencing difficulties that may be affecting their mental health. 

Students who are affected by mental health issues or those who know someone who is can seek help through hotlines such as Lifeline at 13 11 14, beyondblue at 1300 22 4636, and Headspace at 1800 650 980.

For LGBTQ individuals who have specific needs, contact QLife at 1800 184 527.

Students may also seek help from in-house university counsellors or helplines.