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Illustration: Sibilla Grenon

Most of the time, we know what it takes to be a good friend: listening to the occasional fit of ranting, sharing videos of a duck flying into a man’s face and creating ridiculous inside jokes. But when your friend is suffering from a mental illness, it is often hard to know how best to be there for them. Having a supportive network of friends can make a world of difference to the recovery of someone struggling with mental health issues, which is why it is so important that we understand how we can best help those we care about when they need extra support.

Rosanna Hardwick is a Senior Consultant at Student Minds, the main student mental health charity in the UK. She has offered up her professional expertise to The Saint on how best to support a friend struggling with mental health issues.

Ms Hardwick suggests that helping a friend feel heard is the most important thing. To do this, try to have open and non-judgemental conversations about how he is feeling. It can be difficult to know how to start one of these conversations, even with a very good friend but there are a few ways to make it easier.

First, make sure that you are in a quiet and private space and have enough time to have a proper conversation. Then, ask open-ended questions such as, ‘How have you been feeling recently?’ or ‘I’ve noticed that you seem more stressed this week. Is there anything that you are worried about?’

One way to avoid making these conversations too intense is to do something while you are chatting, whether that something is doing the washing up together, walking along the coast or just having a cup of tea or coffee. It can be helpful to have something to look at besides the other person. Of course, you should never force a friend to confide in you, but creating a safe and quiet time to talk properly and letting them know that you are available to talk about anything is one of the most important things that you as a friend can do for someone struggling with their mental health.

Miriam Chappell, the SRC’s Wellbeing Officer, says: “If you are a friend looking to support someone struggling with their mental health, you might want to offer to be there with them when they seek help. At the end of the day, though, that’s their decision and must be respected. If they’re not ready to seek further help yet, that might be frustrating for you, but don’t focus on the negatives. If they’re talking to you about how they’re feeling, the first step has already been made! Starting that conversation even just with you has probably been very difficult and it is important to acknowledge and respect the effort it may have taken for them to come to you.”

It is natural and completely understandable to be scared of saying the wrong thing to a struggling friend. However, it is important to remember that what matters far more than the advice you give is that you listened and cared. A great way of listening and having something to say is to repeat what your friend has just said in your own words and ask whether that is what they meant. This shows that you care about understanding how they feel, and it will mean more to them than saying that you know exactly how they are feeling when you do not. Reflective listening can even lead a friend to understand their own feelings better by hearing someone else’s perspective on what they are going through.

Of course, you may say the wrong thing sometimes because you are human. But the worst thing to do is to make a big deal out of your error. This makes the apology about you feeling better instead of about recognising that you said something insensitive and moving on. In particular, if you are in a large group, perhaps wait until it is just you and your friend to apologise to avoid drawing attention to your friend’s issues with mental health, which could make the situation more stressful.

Another way you can avoid saying the wrong things is to learn about the disorder or mental health issue your friend may have been diagnosed with. There are thousands of resources on the internet that provide information about mental illnesses, but good places to start include the Royal College of Psychiatrists website and the NHS website, both of which include information about how to spot symptoms and list methods of treatment.

Student Minds has recently run a nation-wide campaign called ‘Look after your mate.’ An extensive guide for friends can be found on their website that covers how to support friends through university, focusing on stressful transitions such as the initial arrival period and moving on after graduation. It includes a great deal of practical advice combined with real life stories. If you are interested or concerned about a friend it is a very worthwhile read.

Encouraging your friends to seek outside help can be very difficult. Many people resist looking into getting help for their problems because they worry they will be judged or are just uncomfortable talking face-to-face with a stranger about their issues. If this is the case, you can recommend an anonymous service, offered by both Nightline and Student Minds. The former even has instant messaging and e-mail services if phoning is something that triggers anxiety.

When your friend feels ready, help them book an appointment with a counsellor through Student Services or with their GP. If they are still concerned, you could offer to go with them and wait outside or even sit with them in the session if that would make them more comfortable. After a session, asking your friend how it went and whether it was helpful is a great way to start another conversation whilst also letting them know that you are still there to listen should they need that support.

As well as letting your friend know that you are there for them in words, you can show them that you care in the little things. Send them videos or music recommendations that remind you of them, buy them little presents or just go and knock on their door and have a quick chat. Such simple actions reassure your friend that you mean it when you say that you are there for them. This can be incredibly important because people suffering from anxiety in particular often find it difficult to ignore the self-doubting feeling that no one truly cares about them or that they are all alone.

It is important to strike the right balance between having discussions about how your friend is feeling and taking their mind off their problems by going out. However, mental health issues often can make it much harder for someone to motivate himself to go out and socialize.

If your friend is suffering from anxiety, he or she may feel very isolated or lonely because anxiety is stopping them from going out and meeting people. A great way to help a friend with anxiety is to host a small party in a place they feel safe and where they know most if not all the people attending. Talk to your friend before the event, reassure him or her about who will be there, and let them know that he can leave at any time if they feel anxious and that he does not have to talk if he does not feel comfortable.

Many social events revolve around food, which can be very stressful for people suffering from eating disorders. Recognising this and planning to do things like going to the aquarium or taking a gym class or staying in and watching a film, all of which are activities that do not involve eating, is a great way to include friends who are struggling with mental health issues without adding to their anxiety.

Alcohol and drug use can also be problematic behaviours for people with mental health issues. If you are worried about your friend’s behaviour, there are three steps that you can take to help out. Firstly, try whenever possible to go out with your friend and look out for him or her. Secondly, plan even i n g s where you do not have to drink, such as a card games evening. (After all, successfully lying your way through a game of cheat is the most effective high out there.) Be inventive and revel in the cheap thrills (literally) of sober fun. Thirdly, have an open conversation with your friend about what is worrying you, encouraging him to seek medical advice from their GP. Concentrate on listening to why he or she may be using alcohol or drugs in an unhealthy way rather than pressuring him to get help or labelling his or her behaviour unnecessarily.

When supporting friends, it is important not to forget to look after yourself. Although friends can help people suffering from mental health issues, you are not a superhuman and cannot help everyone all the time. Recognise when you can help and when a friend’s problems may be outside of your control, and remind yourself of this frequently. Prioritising your own mental health and problems is not selfish! You cannot help anyone if you are burnt out and stressed yourself. Seek support for yourself, from other friends or from Nightline or Student Minds, and remember to set aside time for yourself each week just to give yourself a mental break. “Don’t forget that worrying about friends can take a toll on you too,” Ms Chappell said. “These services are open to everyone, regardless of the problem you’re facing.”

Being a good friend to someone with mental health issues may involve changing how you act around your friend in some ways but most important of all is to keep being the friend you always were. So keep listening to their ranting, sharing viral videos and laughing at your terrible jokes. If nothing else you will remember all over again why you became friends in the first place.

1 COMMENT

  1. Great article there Kirsty, informative and appropriate for many people. To get on with them socially is definitely best-kept in comfortable situations, but don’t lose sight of the fact that they are still your friend like anyone else.
    I do nonetheless feel compelled to pick you up on your spelling of counsellor 😉

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