There are lots of blog posts and articles out there in the wonderful World Wide Web for how to support your friends and family who have mental illness. This got me thinking: How different is it to support your friends and family who are struggling with mental illness, while also having mental health problems yourself? Is there a difference? After hemming and hawing for the past two weeks, I have come to the personal conclusion that while there are many similarities, there are also some things to consider while trying to support your mentally ill brethren. Here are some tips and suggestions I’ve collected that I think would be helpful to keep in mind to keep both you and your friends’ mental health intact and a-okay.
Mental health is hard to talk about
Talking about mental health to someone who doesn’t suffer from mental illness is a difficult task, but oftentimes for me, it’s even more difficult to talk to someone who also has mental illness. Some common things people with mental health issues tell themselves is that ‘it’s not that bad’ and ‘there are people who have it worse’. Because of this, it can be hard to open up around someone who also shares this same internal thought process. This is important to keep in mind when communicating with your friends and family. If they confide in you, know that it must have been difficult for them to do so, and take their word seriously. I personally find it humbling when a friend comes to me for support, because I take that to mean that I’m someone that they can trust. Sometimes, just knowing that there’s someone out there you can talk to if need be is comforting enough.
Don’t ask how they’re feeling (at least, not all the time)
As someone with mental illness, I can tell you that 9 times out of 10, when someone asks me how I’m doing, I will automatically say I’m doing fine, even when that’s not the case. I’m sure I’m not the only one who does this. We’ve been taught for so long that this is the appropriate answer, even if we are troubled, because it’s considered not socially acceptable to tell people that you haven’t been feeling your greatest, or that you’ve been getting out of bed at 4PM every day for the past week. When trying to support a friend with mental illness, I would avoid this line of conversation entirely. Instead, ask them interesting questions. Have they been watching anything entertaining recently? What music have they been into? Have they seen this TV show? Do they have plans for this weekend? All of these questions can lead to good conversations that will if nothing else, keep your friend occupied, instead of having them feel guilty for lying to you about how they’re feeling. A little, ‘hey, what’s up?’ is fine now and again, but I try not to make it a frequent question.
Support is a two-way street
Friends tend to rely on each other for support, mental illness or no. However, one thing to especially keep in mind is that this support goes both ways. If you find yourself unloading lots of emotions and feelings onto a close friend, be sure to ask them if there’s anything they would like to talk about. The same applies if you’ve been acting as a therapist to your friends. Even if they don’t ask, don’t be afraid to say something along the lines of, “Hey, can I talk to you about something?” (after their problems have been discussed, of course). In order for healthy friendships to work, there has to be some sort of balance. There can’t be one side giving everything and taking nothing, and vice versa. While supporting your friends is important, keep your mental health in check too.
Don’t overwhelm them
This tip is for everyone, mentally ill or not. Sometimes people just want to be left alone to their own devices. And while I’m sure you want to support your friend as much as possible, they’ll more often than not want some breathing room. This of course will be different for everyone, but make sure that you’re not overwhelming the person that you’re trying to help. Ask them if they want you to back off a bit, and try not to be offended if they say yes. As much as you may think your constant messages, or the ‘10 Yoga Poses to Cure Depression’-type articles could help, it could very well be doing just the opposite. It can be difficult to watch someone you care about, please try not to take it too personally. We all enjoy a little space from time to time, and for those of us with mental health issues, that space can be incredibly rejuvenating.
In short, there are only a few extra things that need to be considered when helping out your fellow mentally ill. At the end of the day, simply treat them the way that you would want to be treated if you were going through the same things, and it’ll be a lot easier than you think. And if you really are stumped, simply asking can take you a long way. Communication is key, and sometimes it pays to just ask and listen.
About Maddie Katz
Maddie Katz is a recent college graduate. Her interest in mental health started when she was diagnosed in high school. Her other interests lie in writing, music, theatre, and cats.