Ten Ways You Can Support a Friend with Mental Illness
Growing up can be tough. It can often feel like even your BFF doesn’t understand you, and frankly sometimes you can’t even understand yourself. The mood swings rushing through your body may make you feel over the moon or like you want be left al0ne in the dark.
If you are like most teens, having someone you can trust that is there for you is crucial to surviving this transition period. Personally, I have a collection of friends for just this reason. I have one that loves to make me laugh, another that is great listener and one that never makes me talk, but just sits and chills with me. I also know that I’m someone that those people can count on too, because they have those days when they just need a friend.
I have one friend that is a bit tougher than the rest of us. On top of the usual stressed of being a teen, she also suggers from bipolar disorder. That means her highs and lows are a lot more extreme and being around her can be a bit like riding a rollercoaster.
I know she counts on me for support. For a long time I didn’t know wha tto say or how to help. It was different with her than my other friends. It took me some time to figure out how to be a supportive friend but I didn’t want to give up on her, she was my BFF since we were six.
I thought it would be great to use this space to share some of hte ways that I leanred to help my fiend. With one in five Canadians suffering from mental illness, you probably have a friend or two that could use some help also.
First things first, even if you don’t know much about their mental illness, ou aren’t there to be your friend’s doctor or caregiver. You are there to be their friend, amigo, confidant, ally, listener and most of all someone that they can talk to.
Here are few pointers to help you better understand what you can do to the be there for someone you care about:
Get in touch with your friend.
Whether it is in person, over the phone or online, do not be uncomfortable reaching out to a friend. They may not be up for talking or hanging out at that exact time but they will be happy to know you are there for them when they need you.
Understand that it is not your fault, in fact it is no one’s fault.
Mentail illness is a sickness like any other medical problem. It is in no way anyone’s fault, One of the best things I found was a support group available specifically for friends of persons suggering from mental illness. Joining one helped me realize that all of us just wanted to help our friends. They helped me find ways that I could help my friend and I even made some new friends while I was there.
Don’t task yourself with changing your friend.
Your friend has lots of people in their life trying to “change” them – doctors, psychiatrists, teachers, their parents. The last thing you want to be is lumped in the pile with people they aren’t always the biggest fans of. Your job isn’t to try and fix your friend’s problems. Being a good friend to that person just means being there for them in whatever way you can. This may mean going roller skating or baking cookies, or whatever it is that works for them. But remember what works for you may not work for them, so being open to helping them explore activities can be an adventure for you both.
Listen, listen, listen!
By nature human beings want to help each other out. I know as a problem solver I always try and offer up suggestions, but one of the things I learned that works best for my friend is to just listen. Sometimes she has something that she wants to get off her chest and knowing that I am truly listening to her, and understanding how she feels, can make a big difference in her day.
Get out of the house.
You know how after a long weekend with your family stuck in your house that heading to school seems like a day at the amusement park. Well maybe that’s a stretch, but getting out of the house can feel pretty good. Ask your friend to join you for a walk, a coffee or maybe dinner and a movie. Roas hotdogs over your backyard BBQ and watch a scary movie, or take a nature walk and see how many different animals you can find. Sometimes a little distraction can be a good way for both of you to take a break from how “busy” many mental illnesses can become.
Put yourself first.
This may sound strange, but you are not much good to others if you are stressed or overwhelmed with things in your own life. Your friend will be able to tell you have other things on your mind, so make sure you take time for yourself before you dedicate too much of yourself to someone else.
The saying “misery loves company” does not apply here. When you have a friend who is suffering from something like a depression or is grieving the loss of a loved one, it is important that you keep your spirits up and keep a positive outlook. With any luck your positive energy will rub off on your friends and they will find comfort in that!
Learn about your friend’s mental illness.
No one expects you to become an expert. In fact, assuming you know all there is to know abou tanything can jurt more than it can help. From my own experience, I know that knowing something was great place to start. My friend felt more comfortable sharing what was happening with me, and we used this as an opportunity to explore questions we both had together. We found some great mental health websites online that answered a lot of questions we both had. Spending a few minutes away from updating my status and exploring a little more about my friend’s mental illness showed her that I cared enough about her to take time to be more aware.
Be a resource.
Sometimes you might know something isn’t quite right with your friend before they do. Helping your friend get help can be one of the best roles you play in their life. It’s really hard to take the first step alone. Simply walking with them to their appointment, or going with them to see the school guidance counsellor can mean a lot. Help encourage your friend to get help and to keep talking to you about what they are going through.
If your friend has opened up to you, they trust you. Respect this trust and respect their wishes as to whom you share information with and when and what type of support you give them. Unfortunately mental illness still carries a stigma; which means that some people may be hesitant in opening up about their struggles. Respect these feelings whether you agree with them or not. If your friend doesn’t see you as trustworthy then they may lose a very important support system.
Understand that mental disorders, like most medical conditions, are not a one size fits all disease. There are not cut and dry rules to support someone suffering from particular symptoms. Talk to your friend and get an understanding as to how you can best support them. Just simply ask, ” What can I do to help?” It’s an easy sentence but sometimes we get so busy in trying to help someone in all ways we can think of, we forget to ask them what would help them.
Use some of (or all) the suggestions above to support your friend but be aware that sometimes what was helpful one day may not be next. Be flexible, be respectful, and just be there for them when they need your help. It is also good to know who to call and what to do, if you suspect they need the help of a professional.