September 20, 2012

She was there, giving me time to cry and time to talk, without making any comment, but offering her care and a hug. That was enough.

I was diagnosed in 2008 with depression and anxiety. Suddenly, the rumble of feelings that had been gradually affecting my life more and more had a label and I was given something concrete to tell my friends and teachers, which explained why I hadn’t "been myself lately."

For all the relief of facing treatment, it was a fairly daunting thing. I started by telling someone who I trusted deeply because I wasn’t too sure what it all meant myself and, just like me, she didn’t get it. The essential thing was, though, that she was there; giving me time to cry and time to talk, without making any comment, but offering her care and a hug. That was enough.

Other friends weren’t so understanding. I found it monstrously frustrating trying to open up to someone who would turn around and say, “yeah me too,” or start talking about themselves, when I needed only comfort, not comparison. With time I began to realise that people don’t have much of a vocabulary for mental ill health – we never got taught in school how to respond when someone says, “I’m struggling,” let alone how to cope if we’re struggling ourselves.

If a friend tells you that they are suffering with mental distress, you might feel pretty mixed up too. You might feel worried, angry, scared or confused. I’ve written these 7 tips based on my personal experience of talking about mental health problems. I hope that they suggest how you can manage your friendship and offer support.

1. Look after yourself

First and foremost, you need to look after yourself. It is ok to say to your friend that you don’t feel like you are able to support them if you are feeling bogged down yourself. Being a great friend means remembering to care for yourself first so that you can be strong when your friend really needs you.

2. Ignore myths

There are a lot of myths in the media and whispers that get passed around about mental health. If you are interested, there is nothing shameful about reading up and learning from reliable sources what is really involved – chances are it’s not nearly as scary as you think. This way, you can be there for your friend and offer some understanding.

3. Listen

It is important to listen to your friend and to hear what they are saying. You might want to try to fix their problems or to find a solution to what they are struggling with, but often it is better just to offer a shoulder to cry on, rather than to try to be Superman. Your friend will appreciate you saying, “I am here,” rather than “You need to...” People are often tempted to say, “I understand,” but everyone’s journey is personal and unique to them. It is good to offer your listening ears and to allow your friend the space to express themselves, rather than making comparisons with your own experience.

4. Limit questions

As you care for your friend, you’re bound to have questions. Sometimes, your friend won’t be able to answer them because it’s often as bewildering for them as it is for you, or they might be tired out from talking, so ask enough to help you understand, but not so much that it is intrusive – remember these are very personal things and your friend has had to be brave to open up to you. They may or may not want to tell you a lot, so let them take the lead.

5. Respect courage

It takes an awful lot of courage to stand up and tell someone you are suffering with mental health problems, even your closest friends. Your friend might feel nervous that they will lose your friendship or that you will judge them. It’s a privilege when someone shares intimate details of their life, so treat them carefully and gently and let your friend know they can trust you.

6. Hang on in there

Your friend may want more time alone than before, or they might be snappy, tearful or even hyperactive sometimes and you might feel that your friendship is changing. It’s never easy but try to remember that your friend is still the person you know and love, even when they are struggling.

7. Seek Support

It’s important to keep your friend’s personal issues confidential but if you are concerned speak to a trusted adult like a teacher or your parents. Equally, if you’re feeling troubled or if supporting your friend is getting you down, it’s ok to take some time for yourself and to talk to someone. Your friendship is important but so are you.

Learning that someone you love is suffering is always tough, whether it is a friend or a family member. It isn’t always easy to support someone that you love either and it’s ok that sometimes you might feel pretty fed up or down yourself. However, offering someone compassion and friendship when they are at their lowest is a brave and tremendously kind thing to do and above all, you should feel proud of your love for your friends.

I took a risk in opening up to my friends about my problems and, sometimes, they didn’t offer the support that I had hoped for. The ones who really helped were the ones who didn’t say, “Everything is going to be ok,” or “I understand,” but who were simply there, for a moan or a giggle or offering a hug just like always and who were delighted to see me when I began to come out the other side.

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Comments

Friend with Severe Anxiety & Social Phobia!

Ive just been to visit a friend with all of the above & more. It was a terrible shock to see & I hope I didnt look too shocked myself. I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your tips with us, I do, obviously, want to help her & now I know that the best way to help is to listen & not bombard her with questions. Again thank you so much.

Interesting article.

A very astute understanding! This sort of thing should be given to carers at the beginning of their long path, it would help them. Your point about not understanding is a key problem, in my opinion, as there is very little education available to the newly diagnosed. Often it lands to the carer to hunt down information if their charge is not in a capable state of mind. I've been the carer whilst having a diagnosis of Type II Bi-Polar Affective Disorder. I'm on both sides of the fence. Thank you!

I really enjoyed reading your

I really enjoyed reading your tips, it is always a frightening thing to tell people or strangers about your mental health with the fear of rejection and isolation. Thank you for sharing your tips.

Good advice

These tips are really useful to know. I feel they are good guidelines for dealing with anyone, regardless of whether they have a mental illness, or not. There are far too many people who use every disclosure as a spring board for their own experience, accomplishments, struggles, which just diverts the attention to themselves. Too many people don't know how to truly listen and be there, without having to bring their own egos into the equation. These guidelines are good for just learning to be a good friend, and also, you never know when illness is developing unnoticed. Treating people with more respect and kindness would help people generally and make the world a better place when we face life's challenges.

Great tips

Just want to say thanks for these great tips, as someone who suffers first hand from depression and anxiety and also experienced others close to me suffering I totally agree with these tips. Often people feel like they need to offer a practical solution to people who are suffering by telling them what they should do, but only you yourdself know what is best for you and others can only speak from their point of view which is often unhelpful. It's also difficult to find the right balance between taking the problems seriously enough but not blowing them out of proportion. It can be upsetting if people treat it as just a little hiccup and don't give you the support that you need, but it can be equally unhelpful if people treat it like it's the end of the world and make you feel even worse about the situation. One thing I would like to debate however, is who you should go to to discuss these situations. From my experience, many teachers and parents know very little about mental health and may well give very bad advice on the subject. I would recommend talking to people who know about mental health, such as the Mind charity helpline, who I have found to be more helpful than anything or anyone else. Otherwise, just showing compassion and letting them know you'll be there whatever happens, without judging, is some of the best support you can offer.

FINALLY - someone who gets it!!

Phoebe, what a great article. Well written and incisive, it gets right to the heart of what all of us suffering from depression and anxiety most want to say to friends and family. Thanks again, and I shall be passing this on....

Wise words

Just to say that I think that these ideas are excellent. From the pov of someone who has had depression, and also gone on to work with people experiencing mental illness, they make a lot of sense. All the very best to Phoebe and those of you who visit her blog. God bless. x

GREAT TIPS

Thanks for these tips, they're really good. I would add that it's ok to tell your suffering friend when you're having a bad day yourself and to keep communicating with them. The thing I found hardest when I was really ill was that though my friends were there for me, they stopped telling me about their own lives. This limited my world view and effectively created more isolation. I needed my friends to tell me some normal things were happening so I could lift my eyes from how desperate and dreadful things were in my own life and realise that for some of my friends things were ok. The moments when this did happen I caught fleeting glimpses of an idea that I might recover my health and with time and support I have. Also for me it was really good to be able to listen to my friend's own struggles with her life, this made me feel as if there was fellowship in suffering, that I wasn't the only one. In time I realised that it is a human need to give out love and friendship as well as to receive it. My friends allowing me to give to them, even though I wasn't 100%, was something that helped me feel valuable. In doing a few practical things for them I honoured: myself and my own skills; our friendship by offering the little I could to people I knew would appreciate it and their support of me by making sure our relationship didn't become all one way. For me this was really constructive. :) thanks again. K

Thank you

I'm very touched by the messages I have received in response to my blog. When I signed up to write something for Time to Change, I hoped it would prove helpful for just one person. Now I have nine beautiful messages and I'm thrilled. Thank you.

From a friend's point of view

My friend became very ill in 2009 and couldn't see me for about nine months. It was very tough but I kept sending letters and cards so he knew I was still there for him. It built an incredible amount of trust, and like Phoebe says I feel privileged that he has shared so much of his feelings, tears and pain with me. That said, we have shared some real fun times too and he tells me that just having someone outside his immediate family to talk to has helped him no end. Before that he didn't believe talking did any good. He is still unwell and I still want to 'fix' him. I get frustrated with his lack of progress - and so does he. Sometimes we get angry with each other about it. Sometimes I have to retreat a little emotionally because it all gets too much. Nobody's perfect and Phoebe is right when she reminds friends to look after themselves too. One of the really positive spin offs for me is that I know understand much more about mental illness than I ever thought I would and I hope that because of that in both my personal and my professional life (I'm an accountant) I have been able to make people think twice before discriminating or writing someone off.

from me

My friend become ill this year(2015)she has depression she is always thinking of killing herself and i don't know what to its really hard for me and her family to take. i had recently been diagnosed with anxiety because i really worry about my brothers and sisters, whenever they come home late i worry a LOT but its mostly my mum i worry a lot. I keep missing school times to look after her thats how much i worry about her ;) and some people think im weird but im not, if anyone has any advice for me just reply to this because i really really really need the help so please do it################################################################# #################

Support

Hi Naile, I'm really sorry to hear about your friend. It's important that you take time to look after yourself particularly if you are taking the role of the carer. We have a number of support links here: http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/what-are-mental-health-problems/help-support-services Take care, Crystal at Time to Change

mood cycles

Thank you for this article. It was very helpful. However I have a friend who I am supporting who seems fine for about 6 weeks at a time, but almost regularly, and often after something really good has happened, plunges into anxiety and depression, which he then tries to 'treat' by turning to alcohol. After a few days binging, followed by a few more days feeling ill and full of remorse, he then comes back and behaves 'normally' again. These cycles have caused him to lose jobs and friends, and have caused huge family relationship problems. He went to the GP and was given Sertraline (which is fine when he takes it) and was put on a counsellors waiting list but hasn't heard anything from them after 8 weeks! I am almost at my wits end trying to support him as I worry that one day he will harm himself in his despair. (I have friends in the past who I've been unable to help who died.) How can I encourage him to get professional ( counselling) help, and where doesn't have a long waiting time?

Support

Hi there, I'm really sorry to hear that your friend, but please also take care of yourself - supporting someone with mental health problems can be challenging. As an anti-stigma campaign we aren't able to offer advice on support directly, but you may find these links useful: http://bit.ly/1Lh54ZT Best, Crystal at Time to Change

Depression

Were to start... I've been through depression for about 2 months now and I have lost interest and lost a lot of Wight I just down know what to do anymore I hate my self sometimes I really want to cut I just can't handle it anymore so if you have time please respond to me thanks x

Support

Hi there, I'm really sorry to hear that you are not in a good place right now. Please don't feel like you are alone - there are people out there that can help you. Samaritans are now free to call on 116 123. If you feel like you might want to harm yourself you can go to the nearest hospital, they will be able to look after you. As an anti-stigma campaign we aren't able to offer advice on support directly, but you may find these links useful: http://bit.ly/1Lh54ZT Best, Crystal at Time to Change

Great Advice

This has been really helpful advice, I really feel more confident dealing with my friends who are suffering with anxiety and depression. Thank you.

Depression, Anxiety, Bipolar and Binge Disorder

My friend has everything. I've been speaking to her about it for the past 2 years and nothings helped. She won't get medical help and now she has decided that she hates all her current friends and wants to start somewhere new with different friends. Also she has said that she has never liked any of us and that she never wanted to do anything outside of school she just did it because she felt bad. My friend is also a massive hypocrite which may link to one of her issues and she accepts that she is one as well. I don't know what to do because I know I haven't done anything wrong and I feel bad but I have nothing to feel bad about. I have spent the majority of last year, when I was doing my GCSE's, trying to make her happier by talking to her and being a good friend and I probably dropped two grades because of the amount I was talking to her about depression and anxiety. I feel like what she has said to me is rude and that depression and anxiety doesn't do that but then I feel like it's not rude and I shouldn't say that but then I feel like I'm stepping on egg shells around her. I don't know what to do.

Support

Hi there, thanks for sharing. It sounds as though you have been a great friend. If you feel as though your friend is going through a crisis, you could encourage her to seek support. There are some excellent avenues for getting supoprt on our website that could help: http://bit.ly/1Lh54ZT. Take care of yourself, Tim at Time to Change.

Depression

Thank you so much for this article. So I have a friend who has depression, anxiety, anorexia, she cuts and has made herself throw up before. She is not happy with her body image and even after encouraging her that she looks perfect the way she is, she doesn't believe me. We have a close friendship and I managed to encourage her to tell her parents and go to our school counsellor, and she is now going to CAMHS, but I still feel like there is more that I should be doing. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one who wants this for her, and that I'm the only one trying to make things better. It's annoying at times, but I know that I have to keep up my own emotional stability for her sake, otherwise if I'm not strong for her then she will collapse. She has help but she's always scared and her relationship with her parents at home is not good, and it's at that time when I know that there's nothing that I can do and she's hurting all alone. Is there anything else that I can do to help her?

Help

I want support my girlfriend with depression and anxiety and she says says she appreciates my efforts but talkong can often just make it worse so i dont know what to do, she says it hard to be around me as shes let me down, now she says i have to let her go but i cant just do that i care too much.

Hi TommyG,

Hi TommyG, I think it's great that you're trying to help your girlfriend, you're a great guy for focussing on her wellbeing. It's a difficult situation to be in, I'm in this predicament myself, it's not easy when the person you love is feeling like this and nothing you say or do helps. All I can suggest is to continue being there for her, just let her talk, be her shoulder to cry on, tell her you love her, I think sometimes people just want to feel secure and know that someone is there for them, but of course, it's not something that should be forced. I wish I could offer more advice, but that's all I have myself, take care, I hope things work out for you both.

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