When You Have Mentally Ill Friends
I have a lot of friends who are mentally ill. It isn’t that I seek them out, or have “mental illness” as a prerequisite for associating with me – fate has just dictated that most of my closest friends, like myself, have been touched with some sort of mental disorder. I doubt that I’m alone here – if what we seek in friendships is familiarity,1 being drawn to those with mental illness makes sense, even if we aren’t aware our friend is mentally ill at all.
That being said, mental illness can inherently make any friendship more stressful. This isn’t a negative stigma, it’s the hard truth – being mentally ill myself, I know my mental wellbeing can get in the way sometimes. Having anxiety can make this even harder, as it can be too easy to worry excessively about your friends. What follows are suggestions on how you can help if one of your friends is mentally ill.
How to Support Your Mentally Ill Friends
First, and this is an obvious one: stop worrying excessively. This isn’t good for you, and it is perhaps worse for your friend – your excessive worry may exacerbate his or her own issues, and may make that person feel guilty for negatively impacting your own mental health. Neither outcome is ideal.
Instead, establish yourself as a healthy facet of your friend's support network. Tell your friend you’ll be there regardless of what he or she may be going through, and tell the person you unconditionally care about him or her.2 But at that point, you need to step back and trust that your friend will reach out if they need you. Sure, if you have serious concerns about your friend's health, by all means, say something – but in most instances, trust that your friend will be enough in control to reach out. Respect for the autonomy of others is essential.
Giving Your Friends the Benefit of the Doubt
One of the most difficult aspects of mental illness is the ability to empathize with those experiencing it. This is even true for others who are mentally ill – because we’re dealing with the brain, and the fact that mental illness affects every person differently, it can be hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Especially if what your friend is struggling with doesn’t seem to click with you.
But you know what? That’s okay. Mental illness isn’t meant to be completely understood – there’s still so much that even the experts don’t know about. Your job isn’t to comprehend it. Your job is to recognize that whatever’s going on inside your friend’s head is a big deal to him or her.
Don’t try to convince your friend that it isn’t a big deal. Don’t say everyone feels like this sometimes.2 Because to your friend, it may be a huge deal, and what he or she are going through is probably much more profound than what others go through. Instead, tell your friend you care. Tell your friend that even if you can’t do anything to help, you want to be there in case that may change. As someone who’s been in that position before, it’s perhaps the most important thing you can do for a mentally ill friend.
DeSalvo, T. (2019, March 13). When You Have Mentally Ill Friends, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, June 7 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2019/3/when-you-have-mentally-ill-friends