When You’re Worried About a Friend Who Doesn’t Want Help
When you express concern for a friend you think is struggling, the outcome you hope for is that they will open up to you about what they’ve been going through and, if they’re facing a serious issue like a mental illness, they’ll agree to seek help. But what happens when your friend won’t open up, or resists your offer of support? How can you help someone who doesn’t want to be helped?
Why Doesn’t My Friend Want to Get Help?
If your friend is resistant to getting help, don’t take it personally. This is not a reflection on you or your friendship with them. There are many reasons why your friend might not want to talk openly about what they’re going through, or be ready to seek help.
- “I don’t know what to tell you.” If your friend has a hard time talking to you about what they’re going through, it could be that they don’t really understand what’s going on themselves. Talking about it might be uncomfortable or feel frustrating because they don’t have the words to express their feelings. If you can open up about difficult feelings yourself, it may create a space for your friend to take a risk and share their feelings as well.
- “I don’t have a problem.” If your friend gets defensive or angry when you bring up your concerns, or insists that they do not have a problem, your friend might be in denial. This is a common reaction of people who are struggling with addiction, eating disorders, and other mental illnesses such as depression. It’s common for someone to go through stages in coming to terms with the idea that something like an addiction or mental health challenge is interfering in their life. Watch for signs of increasing willingness to accept that there may be a problem and gently raise what you’ve noticed— this may open the door for more conversation.
- “I can handle it on my own.” Your friend might feel like they should be able to handle this problem on their own, without anyone’s help. They might be ashamed that they’re struggling, or see reaching out for help as a sign of weakness. You can validate their desire to handle things on their own, and then remind them of how much strength it takes to accept help from others.
- “It’s not really that bad.” Your friend might not want to feel like a burden to you, other friends, or family members—especially if others in their life are also dealing with challenges. They may minimize their struggles in order to appear fine for the sake of others.
- “You wouldn’t understand.” Your friend might feel like no one would understand—or care about—their struggles if they did open up about them.
- “I’m just in a bad mood.” Your friend might assure you that whatever they’re going through is temporary, and not something serious that requires attention.
- “Therapy is a waste of time.” Your friend might be skeptical of mental health professionals or have negative views about therapy.
- “It’s not worth getting help.” If your friend shuts down, seems apathetic, or gets irritable when you try to talk to them about your concerns, this may actually be a sign that they are struggling with a mental illness, like persistent depression or thoughts of suicide. If you believe there is an immediate threat and that your friend might harm themselves or someone else, call 911.
How Can I Keep Supporting a Friend Who Doesn’t Want Help?
While there are many reasons that your friend might shut down a conversation or resist the idea of getting help, that doesn’t mean we should accept their reasons and give up trying to help. When a friend doesn’t address their mental illness or condition, they could face other serious problems—like failing classes, getting fired, abusing substances, damaging their relationship with you or others, or even contemplating suicide.
Keep Checking In, and Have Fun Too
Don’t be discouraged if your friend brushes you off your first attempt to bring up your concerns. Keep checking in on them gently—remember, it’s important to come from a place of support and not judgment.
If your outreach is successful and you and your friend start a conversation, it’s important to also make time to simply hang out or have fun together. This is especially true if your conversations have been serious or intense. Talking only about what’s not working, can sometimes reinforce difficult feelings or habits. It can also be hard to repeatedly engage in serious conversations over time, especially if they involve the same set of struggles and little clear progress. So it really helps to actively make time for fun or relaxing times where you’re not talking about hardship. Finding time to simply do something enjoyable together, (e.g. play a game,, co-watch a movie, be in nature or workout, make or otherwise enjoy art or music together, or make something creative) is an act of support, too. Moreover, doing something that breaks up rumination, a common side effect of depression, can help to alleviate depression,as well. Lastly, your friendship is more likely to stay healthy if you both have opportunities to enjoy unburdened time with each other.
When to Get Others Involved
If you’ve reached out again and again and they continue to ignore your concerns, it may be time for you to reach out to someone you trust for support and guidance, such as a parent, a coach, a school counselor, or a manager at work or a mutual friend. If you do reach out to others, it does not mean you’ve failed or that you’re a bad friend, it shows you’re trying to find the most effective way to support your friend.
It is important to know that getting others involved may upset your friend at first. This is a common reaction, but it doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do. In fact, research shows that people who are refusing help for issues like eating disorders, self-harm, or substance abuse often feel angry when a friend asks their circle of friends or family members to get involved. In some cases, friendships might even end for a while. But research also shows that most people who decide to get help after their friends and family speak up are grateful that their friend was persistent in trying to help them.
How to Help Yourself While Helping Your Friend
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the stress of supporting a friend who doesn’t want help, it’s okay to reach out for support yourself.
- Read tips on how to take care of yourself when taking care of a friend, and how to help a friend reach out for support.
- Reach out to your own support system. Talk to another friend or family member.
- Text START to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor. These counselors can support you and offer advice on how to help your friend.
- Your safety is critical. If your friend reacts angrily or violently, it’s important to tell someone you trust and seek outside support. If you have reason to believe that a friend is in immediate danger of harming themselves or someone else, call 9-1-1 or emergency services immediately.