Teen mental health: supporting friends and siblings

Mental health issues in young people are on the rise, affecting teenagers in a multitude of ways. As well as those directly affected, this can be a difficult time for those close to them, particularly friends and siblings who are also trying to make sense of the situation.

We consulted Dr Nihara Krause, consultant clinical psychologist from teen mental health charity STEM4, for advice on understanding the effect a young person's mental health problems could have on those around them - and how best to support your child if they are in this situation.


What's happening? 

Three teenagers talking standing against wall

Some emotions that friends and siblings of a young person with mental health difficulties may experience:

  • Confusion about the changes they notice; not knowing whether it is something to be concerned about or not.
  • Helplessness or despair, especially for the future.
  • Anger over the situation or with the person. They may feel the person 'gets away' with their problems or affects the family or classroom negatively.
  • Jealousy or resentment about the attention that is focused on the young person with the problem. Family lives can often be very disrupted by parents having to fit in numerous appointments and accommodate changes such as not going on a family holiday because of treatment requirements, or eating in a particular way. School routines are often also disrupted, whether a friend with an eating disorder is banned from taking part in sport, thereby changing the structure of a team, or the lead in a school play is absent.
  • High levels of grief - they miss the person and the ease of life that they experienced before the problem developed.
  • Guilt, perhaps about being well themselves or about their positive prospects.
  • Worry about the potential impact the situation could have on them, particularly if it is a sibling and the condition in question is in any way genetic, or as a result of a shared experience by friends.
  • Becoming unwell themselves. Schools often report clusters of friends who develop similar symptoms.
  • Embarrassment due to the stigma surrounding mental illness.


Ways they might try to deal with the situation

Siblings and friends, depending on their age, how they cope with difficult situations and what sources of support they have, will deal with the issues in different ways. Some become very self-reliant, while others may become over-reliant, on family members or other friends.

Perhaps what is most commonly noticed is the ability for siblings or friends to lead a kind of dual life – pretending everything is fine and in fact becoming the 'protector' of others.

Negative coping strategies include the use of drugs and alcohol to get by, self-isolation, avoidance or suppressing of emotions, and detachment from family and other friends.

Of course not all effects of being the sibling or friend of a young person with a mental health condition are negative. Learning to be empathetic and understanding, as well as increased motivation to look after their own mental wellbeing, are very positive spin offs.


How to help

Some possible strategies to help siblings and friends cope with the situation:

  • Give them opportunities to talk – about themselves as well as the person they are concerned about. Within a family context this may be with other siblings or parents, while at school it may be with pastoral staff.
  • Give them access to factual information about the condition, as well as support. Recommended websites, discussions with a care team, suitable leaflets or books or talking to a school nurse can all be useful.
  • Be prepared to listen, but in a supportive and non-judgmental manner. You may find training on this subject useful if you are a parent, teacher, peer mentor etc who's trying to help.
  • Help them learn to accept the changes they notice in their sibling or friend and to accept the impact it has on them as well.
  • Encourage them to let the person who is unwell to be as independent as possible and to manage not being over-involved.
  • Help them to avoid placing blame or guilt on themselves – they are not magicians nor therapists.
  • Help them learn to prioritise themselves.
  • Encourage them to gain control over their own lives and take regular time out for themselves, using spare time for things like keeping fit and healthy.
  • Show them how to seek help if they have their own mental health problems.

The impact of mental illness on siblings and friends often goes undetected and yet it can have far-reaching effects – sometimes what is caused is a ripple, but at other times siblings and friends can be caught up in a torrent of emotions, which they may find difficult to deal with, thereby having a knock-on effect on their own mental wellbeing.

For more information and to find out about workshops on this subject, visit STEM4's website.


Last updated: about 3 years ago