When a friend tells you that they have or think they have a mental illness, there is one thing you have to remember: don’t judge them. This is particularly important if you’ve never had direct experience of anyone suffering from mental illness before. It isn’t your friend’s job to educate you about what they’re going through, so listen when they want to talk about it, but don’t push them for details.
If you would like or need to know more about their illness, do some research online. Look out for first-hand accounts provided on mental health websites, but bear in mind that there are a diverse range of experiences of mental illnesses, so not everyone will feel the same. The most important thing is to validate your friend. Let them know that they’re not being dramatic or unreasonable, but that their feelings are justified.
It’s also important not to push your friend into talking about mental health, whether or not they’ve told you about any issues they have. Don’t force or pressure them to take action and get help, as this may leave them feeling cornered and uncomfortable.
Instead, remind them that there are places they can go for help if they feel ready and perhaps offer to help them research the different options. Let them know that they can see the GP or alternatively counsellors at the university’s student support service, but allow them to make their own decisions about their healthcare.
A particularly important way you can support your friend is being aware of any difficulties they may have with accessing professional help. For example, anxiety can make phone calls and appointments intimidating, whereas depression can drain people of energy and motivation. So being able to explain and articulate feelings can be challenging when applying for counselling.
Consider how you can provide support in circumstances like these. Again, don’t be forceful or pushy. Just be supportive to your friend by offering to help make phone calls, accompany them to waiting rooms for appointments or help them work through any written explanation of their symptoms.
While watching someone you love go through mental illness is difficult and distressing, it’s important not to make it about you. Don’t focus on how their symptoms affect you because they are actually experiencing the symptoms first hand, and are probably in more distress.
When talking about mental illness, there is a tendency to talk about the ‘stigma’ around it as if it’s an issue no one is responsible for. There is also a misconception that the stigma disappears as soon as people talk about mental health. Implying that the stigma is ‘self-inflicted shame’ is patronising and invalidating.
Think about how these negative attitudes might accidentally creep into everyday life – perhaps in using mental illnesses as insults. Be aware of this, and challenge them when you see them in yourself and in others.
You may not be able to understand what your friend is going through entirely, particularly if you’ve never struggled. Mental illnesses aren’t fully comparable to emotion. Although society likes to talk about illnesses like depression and anxiety being merely heightened sadness or worry, mental illnesses can involve a wide range of symptoms, many of which are difficult to understand for those who haven’t experienced them. Remember this, and avoid undermining your friend just because you cannot empathise their symptoms.
As I said, it’s important to never shame people for their symptoms. Some symptoms and behaviours linked to mental illnesses are unhealthy and even dangerous, such as avoiding eating or sleeping, self-harm or reckless behaviour. Your friend is probably already well aware of that, and pointing it out will only make them feel more ashamed and uncomfortable.
There are many kinds of mental illnesses, from mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder to personality disorders, anxiety, OCD, PTSD and many more. These illnesses manifest in a variety of ways, many of which may seem unusual if you haven’t encountered them before.
When supporting a friend struggling with mental illness, it’s important to remember to focus on their comfort and safety. Listen to their thoughts and feelings, help them access professional help if they want it, or else allow them to manage in the ways they feel best doing so.
Don’t force them into situations they aren’t comfortable with If they don’t want to socialise or aren’t ready to get help, don’t push them to do it. If they are upset by something you say to them, apologise instead of making excuses. You shouldn’t tell your friends how best to manage life, but you can very gently encourage them to be kind to themselves. Make an effort to show your own support and appreciation for them so they know they can trust and rely on you.
Finally, just remind them that you care and that you are there if they need you. This won’t make them better but will make them feel that they aren’t alone.