(Relationships are, after all, the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week).
This is a post I wrote a couple of years ago on how difficult it is to live with mental health problems in a relationship, both from the perspective of the person with the mental health problem, and from the perspective of their partner. I think that post pretty much sums up everything I feel about mental health in romantic relationships, as a person who has experienced the effects of mental illness from both perspectives. It’s a struggle and it’s painful and it’s hard to stay afloat. And sometimes caring about a person simply isn’t enough to keep you together. But if you keep communication open and honest, and remember that you are on the same side, it becomes easier to live with as you tackle the problem together, rather than treating it as if it were a gulf between you which each of you needed to fill from opposite ends.
So what about friendships? I can say that through the years, I have lost or damaged friendships because of poor mental health. It’s easy to say “oh, well, they weren’t your true friends then.” Actually, some of them were true friends, and to treat them as otherwise just because mental illness came between us, is to belittle both the friendship and the depth of my sense of loss. Sometimes, in illness, along the way, we lose true friends. Not for want of trying on either part but because some of the symptoms of mental illness: isolating; paranoia; substance abuse; inappropriate behaviour, are hard to deal with. This can prove too hard for some people, and that doesn’t make them less good friends, necessarily. People are built of different stuff. People can cope with different things. People are basically all different from each other, and what one person can deal with, another can’t. That’s the truth of the situation.
So how can you be a friend to someone experiencing mental ill-health? There’s a wealth of resources out there and you probably don’t need me to tell you but I will anyway, just a couple, just from my point of view:
- Talk about it. It’s OK to ask how somebody’s feeling.
- Don’t talk about only it. It’s still OK to discuss Eastenders, or football, or an interesting train you spotted last Tuesday. The world hasn’t stopped because of mental illness, and sometimes an “easy” conversation can open someone up to talk about what’s troubling them. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too.
- Find out what helps your friend. Some people like hugs; some don’t. Some people respond well to the suggestion of the thousandth cup of tea. Some people don’t even like tea. By asking questions, you will come to know which suggestions may help.
- Be patient. Mental illness won’t disappear over night and some aspects of it may hurt you. You’re entitled to feel hurt. You’re as entitled to your feelings as your friend is. You don’t have to lie about your frustration, even. But remember that the time will come when things are clearer, and be patient while you wait.
- Be kind. Insensitive comments don’t help anyone, so saying things like “you’ll get over it” or “why can’t you just pull yourself together?” are probably not suitable.
- Remember that (a) a person’s symptoms are not your fault and (b) a person’s symptoms are not aimed at you personally. For example, if someone is extremely unwell, they might do things that are out of character. That is not your fault. But neither is it theirs, and they definitely didn’t do those things just to hurt or offend you, but:
- Sometimes your friend may push you away. Sometimes this is a symptom of the condition itself. Other times it may act as a defence barrier- having been through rejection before, a person might try to push you away before you can do it first. Still other times, it might be that your friend is trying to protect you, thinking that you are better off without him/ her. So (although again, you don’t need to swallow your own feelings and end up hurting yourself) don’t take it as an attack on you, personally. It probably isn’t one.
- Don’t assume that your experiences are the same as another person’s. You may have been through something similar yourself, but the same things that helped you may not necessarily help your friend. Be patient if this turns out to be the case. Not everyone is the same.
- Don’t judge. This can be hard, however non-judgemental a person you are! When a friend is talking of suicide it is so difficult not to jump to all kinds of conclusions because that’s your emotions involved! But take a step back and try to understand that it isn’t your fault, it isn’t your friend’s fault, and there may be routes you can take but definitely, definitely, don’t judge. If you find yourself judging, take a breather. Everyone does it sometimes, but that doesn’t mean your friend has to know it.
- Remember to always look after yourself. You can’t help someone else if you’re barely staying afloat yourself, can you? Make sure that your mental health is always at the forefront of your mind and supporting your friend is secondary. That doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a well one.
So those are my ten steps to being a friend to someone with a mental health problem. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll write about what you, as a person with a mental health problem, can do for your friends as well.