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.
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.