Friendships are not always easy. When we have a friend who is experiencing a mental illness it can be tough going. In reality, it can be bloody hard work.
The reality is though that when we have a mental illness we can get by with a little help from our friends. I know this, because I’ve been really lucky. My friends have been exceptional during my episodes of mental illness. I also know that the research is in – positive social support and friendship has a positive effect on an individual’s recovery and prognosis following a mental illness episode.
If you’re lucky enough not to have experienced a mental illness of some form, then you probably don’t understand what all the fuss is about. “Why does everyone seem to have mental health problems all of a sudden? Depression? Anxiety? All the things?” You might wonder, as you go about your daily life, eating yoghurts and paying bills, generally living in ignorant bliss. And fair enough.
If you haven’t experienced a mental health condition, it can be difficult to comprehend and why would you want to? Take depression, for example. Depression is like an awful houseguest that you definitely didn’t invite to stay. But, here they are anyway, eating up your energy and making a huge mess. Depression doesn’t care that you have work to do. It doesn’t care that there are dishes in the sink and the bins need to go out. It devours your time and strength and will to continue.
Depression can leave you with crumbs. Crumbs are useless. You can’t do anything good with crumbs except make a delicious picnic for insects. Do ants even need picnics? Depression can feel like your head is full of cotton wool and static electricity. It’s not a good time. Well, it wasn’t fun for me. I guess that’s why it got called it depression and not Happy Party Fun Brain.
The point of this is: how can you help someone you love when they’re experiencing a mental health condition that you pretty much have no idea about?
LEARN ABOUT IT
In general, I find that the more I know about something, the easier it is to comprehend and the less difficult it becomes to deal with. (Unless the thing is climate change. The more I seem to find out about climate change, the more panicked I become.) If we’ve got a loved one with a mental health condition, we can value the friendship by learning more about the illness to understand how it might make them feel and maybe increasing our confidence in providing love and support to them.
PRACTICAL HELP GOES A LONG WAY
People experiencing an episode of mental illness need all the things other people need. Food, water, a billion dollars in unmarked bills – the usual. But it can often be a bit harder for us to gain access to those things at this time, on account of having our brain being hijacked by a piece of meatloaf. Yes, empathy and solidarity are wonderful things, as are flowers and little notes. Sometimes though, a little bit of help with the washing, or the cooking, or tidying away some of the clutter that builds up during a phase of mental illness would be the stuff of splendid dreams.
Unfortunately, it’s really, really, really difficult to predict how long it might take for a person’s mental health to show improvements. When I experienced depression and anxiety, not knowing how long it would take to get out of the slump, and perceiving exasperation (whether real or imagined) from my loved ones only heightened the anxiety and pressure. If you can, relax. Remember that no one invites their mental illness in, to fester in their brains, and you can’t send it scurrying back to wherever it usually lives. Please relax. Just being there is good enough. Your friend will no doubt be working harder than you can imagine to stay alive and get through each day, so don’t try and rush them, or question what's going on inside their head. Just look at the outside of their head (where their face might be) and say “You’re strong. I’m here with you through this. You are going to feel better.”
TRY NOT TO SAY DUMB SHIT
Dumb shit would include: “you should eat healthier and exercise more”, “my friend Penelope had depression once and she got better by going to a psychic”, “but you don’t have anything to be sad about” “[Invitation to do something self-destructive and dangerous]”. If your friend is acting in a way you really can't get your head around, the thing to remember is that they are still your friend. So being genuine and caring is your best option here.
Try not to nag your friend to describe what their mental illness is or convince you that it is a real and serious condition that has very little to do with being sad/nervous/weird. Your friend probably doesn’t have time for this as they are busy being unwell. Treating mental illness like it’s an indulgence or an embarrassment is validating the very real shame that we already feel. Trust me. The world asks us to be ashamed. It asks us to be quiet. What we need from our friends is for them to say “you don’t need to hide this. You don’t need to be ashamed. This is happening, it’s real, and it’s not your fault. Also you want a delicious biscuit that looks like a button? Here you go. Here is a button biscuit. It’s so small, right? And tasty. Wow. Amazing.”
LOOK AFTER YOURSELF
There is really no need to martyr yourself for our emotional health. That’s not how any of this works. Do what you can do. Don’t do more. Don’t make yourself weak to try and make someone else strong. Your wellbeing is important, and I promise you you’ll only exhaust yourself, and end up resenting us if you make it your job to nurse us through the whole ordeal. So don’t. When we have a mental illness we can really struggle to be good or engaged friends at times and you’re allowed to feel frustrated about that. Take time off from it all if and when you need to. You aren’t failing us by looking after yourself. We love you. We might just be a bit weighed down by the univited house guest to express our appreciation right now. Also, don’t take our shit. Unacceptable behaviours don’t get a pass just because I’m unwell. You don’t deserve cruelty or abuse so please tell us if we're out of order; if not immediately then when our episode has passed.
AND … KNOW YOUR OWN LIMITS
I’ve been on the other side of this friendship too and had friends who have been struggling with their mental health. Despite receiving treatment, their reliance on me has at times become emotionally draining and some days it has taken a toll on our friendship. While we may feel an obligation to care and ease the pain for those closest to us, at the end of the day we must understand our limits and look out for ourselves too.
HELP US STICK TO GOOD BEHAVIOURS / A HEALTHY ROUTINE
What were once ‘easy’ or ‘normal’ routines can become really difficult during mental illness. Breakfast needs to be eaten everyday. A walk in the afternoon is a good idea. Green tea can help. Everyone needs water. Taking medicine has to happen as prescribed. Whatever. These things seem simple but are often monumentally hard tasks when a particularly bad spell of depression comes around. When nothing matters, these things happen less.
Gentle reminders are good, or an all-caps text message that says “YO! DID YOU DRINK WATER TODAY? ALSO LOOK AT THIS PICTURE OF A FRENCH BULLDOG DANCING IN A SOMBERO. SO CUTE.” These sorts of gestures go a long way. Gently nudge us into behaving like humans. That way when the fog lifts and we can look around at our lives again, we won’t feel horrified at all the things we let slide. Maybe we'll give you a little kiss on the head, too – for being a pal. Thanks.