I have had a lot of negative experiences when it comes to friendships and mental health. I have had friends not understand and walk away, I’ve been accused of attention seeking or being ‘retarded’. I have had friends fall out with me and never talk to me again because I needed a hospital admission. On one occasion a friend told me that they would not visit me in hospital because they felt this would encourage me. Often people have treated relapses or crises as ‘bad behaviour’ and my most unwell moments have often been my loneliest. I reached a point where I felt I did not deserve friends because I was mentally unwell-I felt like my company wasn’t fair on others and I totally isolated myself. I am now very lucky and incredibly grateful that I have one very good friend, her family really brighten up my day and keep me going and I no longer feel alone.
Here are my tips on how to support a friend who is suffering from mental illness:
- Do be aware that your friend may not want to talk about mental health constantly. Be there with listening ears if they do but from my experience the best way to help me to feel better is to talk about normal things or do something fun.
- Do make sure that you are coping, seeing someone you love unwell can be distressing. Make sure you have support and if things are becoming too much, tell your friend how you feel because your feelings matter too.
- Do make sure that you are not your friend’s only form of support, friends are important and fabulous but in the same way that it is unlikely you could perform open heart surgery on your friend, you cannot be your friend’s psychologist, GP, psychiatrist, dietitian and so on.
- Don’t expect to ‘fix’ your friend.
- Don’t make empty promises, only say what you are actually prepared to do.
- Don’t compare your friend to others with the same illness unless it is to inspire them. For example, don’t say “Oh my friend was so much iller than you” because it could make your friend feel like they are not ill enough to seek help and this could leave them isolated and alone.
- Don’t ask to see self harm or scars.
- If your friend is suffering from an eating disorder, do not mention numbers or force food on them. Encouragement is fine but be aware that too much pressure may cause more problems for your friend. Try not to talk about diets or exercise. Don’t comment on their appearance. People with eating disorders are often easily triggered.
- If your friend is unemployed, perhaps they have very few friends then they might not leave the house often. It can be helpful for your friend to go out for coffee and feel ‘normal’ for a couple of hours.
- Make sure you take time for yourself and that your mental health is okay. Take a bubble bath, drink hot chocolate. Look after you. You have to put your oxygen mask on before you can assist others.
- If your friend is school age then make sure they feel ‘normal’ at school. Make them feel part of the group and never use their illness against them. I remember one friend shouting out in the canteen that I self harmed after a fall out. I never forgot it.
- Be understanding that your friend may want time to their self. They might not have the energy to reply to your text or facebook message but it doesn’t mean that they don’t care about you. Having a mental illness can be exhausting. Allow your friend to rest.
- Never use the, “I’ve done so much for you” guilt-trip line in regards to supporting your friend with their mental illness. You might be temporarily angry or annoyed with your friend but this line really leaves a scar. I feel so undeserving of anything from friends and family because I feel they have to ‘put up’ with me. It’s not a nice way to feel.