One of my first posts on this blog was about what not to say when someone’s dealing with depression, but now I thought it would be helpful to address ways you can support someone, too. In this post I will list five different ways you can aid a friend with mental illness.
Anxiety and depression: most common mental illnesses
Anxiety and depression are very common mental illnesses that affect many people at some point in their lives. Chances are that you know someone, or possibly are someone, who has had to deal with this. Although both containing a multitude of symptoms, depression is most known for low moods and loss of pleasure, whereas anxiety takes form in excessive worrying. These two illnesses are great buds and often come hand in hand.
My experiences with anxiety and depression
I have struggled with anxiety and depression, as well as other mental health problems, since my teen years. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that I know what to do when a friend is struggling. It is still hard watching someone go through these things, even if you have experienced it yourself. Therefore I felt the need to set up this list, not only to thank my friends for their support over the years, but also to remind us all that there are things you can do to help.
An important lesson: you will not fix your friend
One thing I do want to strongly urge you to keep in mind, is that you will not be able to cure your friend. This task should be left to professionals. Do not try to stand in place for any kind of mental health professional, even if it’s frustrating to see your friend isn’t getting the right help. You will go beyond your own capacities if you try to do so, and it will likely hurt rather than strengthen the relationship you’ve got together. Protect your friend, but also protect yourself.
If you are worried about your friend and feel they need professional help, talk to them about it. Ask if they have been to the GP or would be willing to go. Perhaps you can even offer to come along with them for moral support.
Back in 2017 when I was going through a really hard time, my friends got me through it.
Ways to support your friend in their mental illness
Let your friend know you are there for them. Send them a message, a personal postcard, or ring them if you know they are comfortable with that. Trust me, it is helpful to let your friend know you care about them. These things aren’t explicitly said very often.
- …communicate in ways they are uncomfortable with (for example, ringing them unannounced when that’s something that makes them anxious).
Give your friend the space to talk about their needs or share their story, and really listen. Ask them what it’s like, what they are going through, what they do in a day. Most importantly, let them do the talking.
- …try to fill in the blanks/finish their sentences.
- …interrupt them with numerous suggestions and tips.
- …give out unsolicited advice.
Take the initiative to help out with everyday tasks, like cooking, cleaning, and getting groceries. These chores can be incredibly exhausting for someone coping with mental health issues. You can help lift off a bit of weight here.
- …do these things unannounced or without mutual agreement.
- …take on all of their tasks; that way you’re only allowing them to sink deeper into a rut. Perhaps suggest you do the chores together.
Your relationship with your friend doesn’t have to be just about the serious things now that your friend is having a hard time; it can also be nice to have distraction. Consider the low-energy activities you like doing together: watching your favourite series, going for short walks, listening to music. Be there for a good laugh and entertainment too!
- …push them into doing things they don’t want to do.
- …avoid serious conversation with them if they are looking for it.
Talk to your friend and figure out what parts of their mental health condition they struggle the most with personally. There is a huge range of mental health problems, and though diagnoses may be the same, symptoms can still vary from person to person. If you can ask your friend what their experiences are like and maybe figure out together how you could be of help, that would be great.
In addition to that, you can also do a bit of research yourself in order to gain a better understanding of what they might be going through.
- …force your friend into sharing their story.
- …push them to share information they’re not comfortable sharing (for example traumatic memories).
- …ask questions about self-harm and/or suicidal thoughts.
- …act as if you know the cure after doing research. Yes, going outside may help, but No, it is not the magic solution.
I get by with a little help from my friends
Here are some of the best things my friends have done for me:
- Accompanied me to the GP for moral support.
- Took me to ER when I needed professional help.
- Sent postcards as a surprise.
- Sent thoughtful messages to let me know they care.
- Helped me out with the dishes.
- Took time and energy to respond to my messages.
- Listened to my story.
- Showed up when I needed it (my best friend took out a last-minute flight to England for me!).
- Watched our favourite shows together.
- Agreed on regular times to talk/meet up.
- Sent me a message to check up on me.
- Asked me how therapy was going.
- Showed interest in my mental health problems.
Sometimes the smallest gesture can mean a lot. The most important thing is to be there for them in a way that they feel comfortable with; you cannot push your assistance onto someone. Perhaps they need you to be the friend who listens to their story, or perhaps they need you to be the friend who distracts and entertains them. This may differ from person to person. I have many different friends who all have strengths in different areas, and I am very lucky to be supported by such diverse perspectives within my friend circle.
References + other sources
- Things You Don’t Want To Hear When You’re Depressed
- Mental health statistics: the most common mental health problems (Mental Health Foundation)
- Common mental health problems: identification and pathways to care (NICE)
- Types of mental health problems (Mind)