Having been on both the giving and the receiving end of support in a friendship where one party is dealing with mental health issues, I’ve realised how difficult it can be knowing how to be the best friend you can be…
Disclaimer: This ‘guide’ is by no means definitive. It is based on my own experiences and what has worked best for me. I am also not a mental health professional so please do not take this as expert advice! There will also be a particular emphasis on depression and anxiety since these are the conditions I have direct experience with.
It is no secret that mental health issues have long been, and are still, difficult to talk about – for sufferers, their families and the closest people around them. A particularly difficult aspect to address is support and how best to provide it when a friend or family member is suffering with a mental health condition. We ask ourselves ‘Am I doing enough?’ or ‘Am I doing too much?’, or distance ourselves out of pure fear of doing something wrong. It’s important to acknowledge that it is okay to feel this way. We are rarely ever truly prepared for these things and the process is very much a learning curve.
I have put together this short guide of tips and advice for how to offer the best support you can to friends suffering with a mental health condition.
With mental health conditions such as clinical depression, sufferers are often plagued with thoughts of hopelessness and despair. It is an incredibly lonely condition and one that, when left with one’s own thoughts, will only get worse.
It’s important to show your friend that you are there and that you are ready and willing to listen to them. And by listen, I mean really, genuinely listen. It may be difficult to hear how they are feeling and you may not know how to respond, but let them rant. For many, this may be the first time they are saying these thoughts out loud to another person and it can be a relieving experience.
Remember things they tell you too. It can be disheartening having to repeat or explain things over and over and they may hesitate to open up to you again.
2. Be consistent
When you have offered to be there for your friend, make sure you see it through. Be consistent. Regularly check in on them and find out how they’re doing. Again, with conditions like depression, you can be left feeling very alone and forgotten about, with the common thought of ‘Nobody would miss me if…’. Show your friend that this is not the case. Be there like you said you’d be there.
3. Be genuine
This follows on from the importance of being consistent. Fake concern is very easy to spot. Anxiety and paranoia can also make it very difficult to trust others. Be genuinely interested in your friend’s progress. If they are in the process of treatment or recovery, be on that journey with them. You could even help them set goals and milestones and celebrate with them when they reach those goals.
It’s important to show that you truly care about their wellbeing and that you’re not just saying the things you think you should do out of guilt.
4. Visit or regularly meet with them
Those dealing with mental health issues are not lepers! You can still invite your friends to social events or have quiet nights in, or even just a walk in a park. Even if they feel that they can’t attend, at least knowing the offer is there is reassuring.
Anxiety can make attending busy social events a daunting prospect and one that your friend may need to mentally prepare for. So try to think of a good range of things to do, things that aren’t always parties or other crowd-based events and if you haven’t seen them in a while, pop in and visit them (just let them know in advance).
5. Get the balance right
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is getting the balance of all of the above right. It’s important not to overdo it or overwhelm your friend. With depression and anxiety, seemingly simple tasks such as texting or talking on the phone can be very draining and your friend may not want to talk or respond immediately. Be patient with them and don’t be too pushy.
Try to avoid overwhelming your friend with lots of notifications too as this can be a trigger for anxiety. Every case is different, however, so your friend may not have too much of an issue with this. Just take note of the signs and know when to step back and give them a little space.
Whilst there is a lot more to the complex issue of friendship and mental health, I hope that this short guide is a start to you understanding how best to offer support to your friends or family members dealing with mental health issues. It’s important that these conversations are had in order to help lift the taboo surrounding mental health.
If you have any other tips you would add to this guide or experiences you’d like to share, don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments! Or via Twitter, @oliviazao.