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Mental health: how to approach a friend you are worried about

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Mental health: how to approach a friend you are worried about

Epworth HealthCare

Finding a way to talk to someone you are worried about is never easy. But reaching out to someone who needs help is the most important step, according to Epworth’s Program Manager of Mental Health, Maya Zerman. 

"The single most important thing is to be present in relationships so you can be there for anyone in need," Maya says.

She says this doesn’t mean being overly directive (“You have to talk to me about this right now”) rather that you put the structures in place to allow them to come to you when they are ready or letting them know if you are worried about them. These include keeping lines of communication open and offering a trusted space for them to talk to you.

So how do you identify if someone has a mental health problem?

"What you are looking for is changes in a person’s activities or mood – if they used to enjoy soccer and have stopped going, or avoiding activities they usually partake in," Maya says.

"Changes in sleep (too much or too little), changes in appetite (usually a decrease in appetite and subsequent weight loss) are pretty strong indicators. 

"Not coping with work, family, or other pursuits can be an indication of someone struggling to cope as well."

Maya says people with depression often find it difficult to find any pleasure in things, and struggle to remember what it was like to enjoy themselves. ‘Helping someone is about getting them back to where they were in terms of daily routines,’ she says.

Once your friend acknowledges that they would like to do something about their mental health, then the key step is to go to the General Practitioner (GP) for assistance.

"GPs are the gatekeepers of the health system, so your friend needs to find someone they can trust and work well with. Together, the GP and the patient can develop a plan, which may include a mental health plan to see someone 1-on-1 and possibly medication. 

"If people are worried about taking medication straight away, it is important to encourage them find a healthcare professional who can offer one-on-one or group therapy to help them," Maya says.

She says a holistic approach is the best, which also incorporates how people can improve their sleep, exercise and diet to help influence their mental health. 

Exercise works as it stresses the body in positive ways to produce endorphins. Maya says this can start with a brisk 30-minute walk every day. 

"Offering to do exercise with them can be motivating. You can also encourage your friend to improve their diet by eating fresh produce and food high in omega 3s such as fresh fish (rather than highly processed foods). Getting a good night’s sleep is also vital to get back on the way to good mental health.

"Getting back into normal daily and weekly routines helps establish the right foundations for improvement."

Maya says that if the person still requires additional help that might be the time to consider medication. ."The GP or psychiatrist is the best person to advise on this."

She says the key thing is for people to get back to laughing and finding their own vulnerability and becoming more comfortable with it.

"Life is full of stress. If you can help slowly lift the lid on the internal pressure for them it is so much better than allowing it to build up and up and end up needing more acute treatment. 

"However, if you are out of your depth, you could offer to go to the GP together," Maya says. "If they would prefer to have someone else be their support, then think about who would be good – such as a trusted relative that may not necessarily be the parent or next of kin."

Epworth Clinic in Camberwell offers a range of therapeutic day programs that integrate social work, psychology, dietetics, exercise physiology and general practice.

If you are worried your friend or family member may be considering self harm or suicide, you may need to look at acute intervention such as calling Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 or presenting to your local hospital emergency department.