The other day a dear friend of mine asked that I write something on how to be there for someone who is living with a mental illness. I’ve been having a hard time with my mental health recently and he said that he wanted to help but wasn’t sure of the best way to go about it. I thought this was a great idea, so I’ve compiled a little guide on how to be a supportive friend to someone living with MI.
Don’t try to fix it. The solutions to an episode of poor mental health may seem simple. ‘Just get out of bed!’ ‘Think positive!’ ‘Count your blessings!’ ‘Why don’t you take a course/join a gym/start meditating?’ Suggestions like this may be useful in other circumstances, but they are very unhelpful for someone who is struggling with depression and/or anxiety. When you friend is in darkest depths, small tasks like getting out of bed, bathing and going about a normal day seem impossible. It’s natural to go into problem solving mode when the issue is causing someone you care about so much pain. But offering unsolicited, practical advice will only make them feel even more of a failure. Rather than trying to cheer them up or attempt to fix the problem, let that person know that you have been thinking of them, they are loved and you are there for them should they need you.
Don’t be offended if they’d rather not see you. Sometimes it can be difficult to muster the energy to be social, even if it’s just with one person. Having to explain one’s feelings can be incredibly hard. Reaching out and talking about it is the most positive action they can take, but it might not be possible at the moment. Keep letting them know that you have time for them if they’d like to hang out, but don’t take their response, or lack there of, as a rejection. It’s more likely to be a symptom of their illness. Be patient, they’ll come to you when they’re ready.
Don’t try to reason with mental illness. To an outside eye, that person may seem as if they have everything going for them. Their hopelessness, pain and loneliness will appear at odds with reality. There’s no reasoning with mental illness; it’s a malicious liar that tricks its victim into believing a bunch of horrible things that just aren’t true. When I’m ill, negative thoughts swirl around my mind, repeating a destructive narrative which seems irrefutable. Every event seems to provide ironclad confirmation-bias. Disputing a friend’s reality, no matter how distorted, is pointless. Instead gently tell them that their self-perception is not how you view them. They might talk about the pointlessness of existence; say that you understand why they feel that way, but hopefully that feeling will pass in time. Reassure them that all they have to do is get through today and when tomorrow comes you’ll be there to help them through that too.
Let them know that you are concerned. Depression isn’t the only damaging part of mental illness; mania can be just as dangerous. I won’t discuss the variations symptoms of Schizophrenia, OCD, Generalised Anxiety disorder or Borderline Personality disorder (to name a few) because they are outside of my personal of experience of having Bipolar. However there are behaviours which can occur in all of these conditions. You might notice that someone is acting erratically, drinking heavily, taking a lot of drugs, spending more money than they can afford, having reckless sex with strangers or some other destructive pattern of behaviour. Personally, I don’t think that ‘tough love’ is ever helpful, it just comes across as judgemental. Scolding someone with a mental illness triggers shame, which in turn engenders secrecy and more inadvisable choices. I think it’s better to express concern, whilst being careful to avoid judgement. Rather than saying ‘your drinking has to stop’, try approaching the issue with gentle compassion. I would go with something along the lines of ‘I say this with no judgement and because I love you, but I’m concerned about you.’ Whenever a friend has given me a stern talking to, even if their intentions are well-meaning, I’ve felt resentful and annoyed and I’ve ignored their advice. If you are worried that a friend is suicidal, make sure you stay in regular touch. If their behaviour is very alarming and potentially fatal, an intervention may be required. In extreme cases it would be necessary to seek advice from a mental health professional.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do to fix mental illness. It is up to the person suffering to muddle their way through. It’s also not easy being a friend to someone with MI; their repetitive, gloomy and warped perspective is hard to listen to. We are constantly encouraged to be cheerful and optimistic which can make it difficult to open up. Depressives know that their thought patterns are not socially acceptable and will try to hide what’s really going on. Allowing a friend to just be, regardless of how crapy they feel, is one of the kindest and most supportive things you can do. Encourage them to seek medical or therapeutic assistance, if you feel that’s appropriate. The best you can really do is to tell your friend that you love them and they are in your thoughts.