Supporting your Friend with Mental Health Issues

I initially created this blog to share my mental health experiences with others. I hoped to seek a connection with others, break the stigma against mental health issues, and start conversations about topics such as self-harm and depression. However, all of my blogs neglect something that I believe is absolutely important for those with mental health issues: those around us who support us.

For as long as I can remember I found it hard to find support from those around me. It took me years to seek therapy, and then another couple years to find a therapist I really connected with. My family never understood what I needed, and I realized my friends could not help me if they didn’t know how to. With help from my therapist, I learned I should be open to my friends and family, or at least those I sought support from, about what I need during those rough times. Realizing people may not know how to help someone they care for who struggles with mental health was like a lightning bolt hitting me. I should have known this, but sometimes it takes an outsider to help you figure something out. Therefore, I decided to dedicate this post to those who want to support their friends and family, but simply don’t know how.

I know not everything works for everyone. Certain things will be better for certain people. So, I decided to reach out to friends to find out what worked best for them during times they need to seek support.

A lot of people I spoke to agreed that simply talking helps relieve some of the problems someone can have. I don’t necessarily mean that when someone comes to you for support, you need to “talk them down from the ledge.” Sometimes, obviously, that is necessary. However, those who spoke to me, and I agree with them, stated that their friend or family member simply letting them talk or vent helps. There have been many times where I simply needed to talk to someone while they listened silently. Just the act of getting it off of my chest was extremely helpful.

In my own personal experiences, I have often gone to someone for support. I sought only being able to talk, just letting it off of my chest. However, I often ran into things that did not help. Some people would give me advice or help me problem-solve. Advice and problem-solving is great, but during times of great distress it tends to make the situation worse. It stresses me out because my mind cannot cope with thinking irrational, but being forced to think logically (if that makes sense). Forcing my brain to problem-solve is only going to either bring me to tears or shut down completely. Waiting until I ask for help problem-solving is better.

Other times, there are people who simply can’t handle being the supportive friend at the time. This is ok. There are polite ways to communicate this, however. Ignoring that person won’t help. Often times, it makes them feel alone and unimportant. For me, at any time regardless if I’m happy or depressed, not replying makes me feel a variety of different things: loneliness, unwanted, a burden, etc. Even if I am perfectly happy, I will begin questioning our friendship, how important I am to you, and whether or not you really do care for me.

Another things not to do is to push the person away or make them feel that their feelings are not that important. Don’t tell them to “f*** off” or shut up. For me, it tends to push me over the edge. Not only do I feel depressed, but now I feel even worse for someone I trusted enough to go to to shut me down like that. Personally, shutting me down is worse than anything else. It will push me further into the depression, and oftentimes it will lead to suicidal thoughts/attempts. As human beings, we want so much to be supported and loved. It would hurt anyone to be treated like they don’t matter.

So, now that I’ve discussed the ways not to treat someone, what should you do instead? Be honest. Honesty is the absolute best. If you are not able to be their support during that time, let them know gently. Let them know you care, but you cannot help them. Sometimes, you simply need to put yourself first. If you don’t when you should, you will be of no help to anyone. I think some people are being afraid to take this route because they are afraid of turning away someone they care for. Therefore, they choose one of the “no-no” routes, which ends up hurting that person they care for. If you take this honest route, your friend will appreciate your honesty. They will know you want to be there for them, but you can’t at that time. And that’s ok. Never, ever be afraid to set up a boundary when you need one.

Another “no-no” I should mention is when the person comes to you for support, don’t try to force things onto them. Many, many times I have had friends and co-workers tell me to go outside and enjoy the fresh air or do something that I love. And I really, really dislike (as I know many do) when the person says to “be happy” or “you are better off than some people.” Many people I talked to absolutely hated these expressions. If you tell me expressions like this, I will stop speaking to you for a period of time. Never treat your friend’s problems as unimportant or crazy. Try to understand where your friend is coming from.

What I hope my blog as so far proved to those who cannot relate to mental health issues is that it is more than simply doing something or feeling a certain way. Yes, we would love to be happy. Yes, there are people who have worse situations than we do. Yes, we can go outside into nature or do something we love. However, sometimes it just doesn’t change the fact that you are depressed or anxious. I visit Rocky Gap State Park in Maryland often. I threw myself into photography. It became an oasis away from home for me. I could breathe, relax, and truly become at peace. Whenever I left, the depression and anxiety would hit again. I love drawing portraits of people. However, on the bad days that I find the energy to draw, it often does not ease the depression or anxiety. Avoid those expressions, and you will save yourself and your loved ones some irritation.

Letting that person know you are always there for them is important, too. Never lie to them. Never let them believe in false support. Quite recently, I went to a friend for support and I was completely shut down. That friend, who “considered me family,” chose to shoot me down and ignore me, rather than telling me they could not help. However, she always told me she would always be there for me. For me, actions and words should agree with each other, but hers didn’t.

And I say this both to the person suffering from mental health issues and their support… when you need support from a trusted friend/family member, don’t be afraid to tell them how you need that support. If you are someone’s support, don’t be afraid to ask how you can help them. People are different in so many ways. Not everyone can be supported in the same way, and different things help different people. It is incredibly, incredibly important that those of us who suffer from mental health issues to not be afraid to seek support from those we trust. Sometimes a hug is needed, other times a few minutes to vent, or sometimes just to hear something positive. I am always someone who will quickly be there for someone who needs it, but I fear reaching out when I need it. I am working on this, so I’m not a total hypocrite in saying it.

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