How to Help a Friend through Mental Illness
Since starting this blog, lots of people have asked me how best to help their loved ones through a period of mental illness. I was going through my blog posts and realised that for some reason, I’ve not really made a post advising people on the matter. I’ve made posts alluding to the topic, but never directly addressed it as such. Well, now I finally will.
Throughout my troubles with mental health, I’ve had lots of friends by my side. Most of my friends have been absolutely fantastic. Despite some of my rather…shall we say, out of the ordinary behaviour a few months ago, most of them have stuck by my side. As a result, most of the advice I will give here will be the good things that I have experienced from my own friends.
Here’s my advice.
1) Act normally!
This is perhaps one of the most overlooked features of helping someone with mental illness.
In my case, I hated to see myself as being ill. I wasn’t in denial; I just wanted to be seen as a ‘normal’ person despite my illness. There aren’t many cases where people like to be treated differently as a result of their illness, and so I feel it is important to act normally where you can. Obviously if your friend is going through some acute crisis, this will not be possible. We’ll get to that later, however.
Acting normally could just be things like having banter, going out to the cinema or grabbing a coffee. I do appreciate that it can be difficult to act normally when your friend seems a little off or different, but I genuinely feel they would appreciate it.
2) Listen to them if they need a rant
If your friend is really having a low point, encouraging them to talk and listening to what they say can do wonders.
Many people are afraid to talk to their friends who are going through a difficult time. I have learnt that this is not because these people don’t care about their friends, but more because they simply don’t know how to react in those situations. In some extreme cases, people may be scared of accidentally saying something which ends up making their friend feel worse.
If you feel that way, it is clear that you are very much caring and conscientious of your friend’s feelings. However, in a state of poor mental health, your friend may not be able to see this. At worst, they may even assume that you not wanting to talk to them is a way of you saying that you don’t care. I remember how much my judgement was clouded when I was depressed, and I don’t feel that that’s an uncommon thing.
The best thing to do, therefore, is to talk to your friend. There is no right way to talk to them. You will know your friend best so will know how best to talk to them. For example, do they simply want someone to listen to their rants? Do they want someone to give them practical advice? Or do they want you to vent with them?
3) Make it clear you will be there for them. Crystal clear.
This is vitally important.
When my depression eventually progressed to include psychotic symptoms, my state of mind suddenly became very suspicious. It would be late at night, when most people would be sleeping and I would be in utter despair. I would try to text a friend who would be sleeping. Of course, completely reasonably, they wouldn’t be able to respond to me. In a state of suspicion, however, my mind would end up thinking all sorts of weird and wonderful things. Were they ignoring me because they didn’t like me? Or was it something more sinister?
Of course, the real reason was that they weren’t ‘ignoring’ me at all. If you find yourself in this unfortunate position with a friend, it is best to remain firm that you were not out to get them but also make sure you show you’re understanding. The bit in italics is very important. The last thing you want is for your friend to get even more suspicious with you going on the defensive. Nor do you want to agree with them either – this is both unfair on yourself and may open up unrealistic expectation which you’ll inevitable not be able to meet.
One way in which you could show that you’re there for your friend and that you’re understanding is to offer some alternative. Something like: “I’m sorry, I was sleeping that night. I really want to be there for you though. How about we catch up for a coffee instead later today?”
4) The thing no one wants to talk about: What if they’re suicidal?
This is perhaps the most difficult position for a friend to be in. In my case, I’ve always been the friend who has needed the help rather than the friend doing the helping.
If they’re suicidal, treat it as though it’s an emergency. If you can, get yourself physically to them and just show that you are there. Don’t fret if this is not possible, see if you can give them a call or text them instead. Whatever you do, don’t try to make them feel bad for feeling that way. Many people, understandably, end up panicking and saying things like: “Do you not think about how we would feel if you left us?” Whilst this message can mean well (it shows that you don’t want your friend gone), it can also come across as a little insensitive.
Instead, just listen and talk to them in the ways mentioned in 2). Show that you’re empathetic – phrases such as “I understand” when said genuinely can do wonders. Then, when you feel your friend has stabilised a little, make it clear to them that you don’t want them gone. Not in an insensitive way as the example shown above, but in a way that makes them feel valued. Again, you will know your friend best so will know how to help. If all else fails, consider calling the emergency services. As a friend, I would have hated this completely at the time, and your friend may well also hate it. However, months later, I am very grateful to my friends for doing that for me when I needed it. It literally saved my life.
If you suspect your friend may be feeling suicidal, ask them directly. It won’t give them any ideas and could well open an honest conversation that could well save their life.
It is important not to generalise everyone with mental health issues. Something that may work for one person may not work for another – it is human nature to be different, after all. The key thing is: be there for your friend. You may have heard it time after time again, but it is a message that really has to sink in. The very fact that you want to be there for your friend shows how big of a heart you have.