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7 Tips for Making Friends When You Live with Mental Illness

Living with mental illness or mental health challenges can be frustrating. It can complicate the stuff of life, such as making and keeping friendships. In the last post, we explored some obstacles mental illness throws in the way of friendships, as well as a vital first step in friendships: becoming a friend to yourself. Now we'll turn to some practical tips for making friends when you are dealing with mental health difficulties. 

Have a Mental Illness? It's Okay if You Find Friendships Difficult

Know this about friendships: Whether or not they admit it, most people find friendships rather difficult. Unlike people in movies or on television, we don't live in a world where everything is scripted for us. Our movements aren't blocked and choreographed on a stage or set, and we don't have a director coaching us on how to talk and use our body language. We don't have producers or editors or support staff working to make us successful, and we don't have marketing companies spending big bucks on getting people to flock to us. We're on our own to figure out this whole friendship thing. Further, when it comes to truly knowing how others experience friendships, we're at the mercy of their social media posts. These posts are carefully crafted and controlled, so they're not actually reliable. 

Making friends is anxiety-provoking even for people who don't live with social anxiety or any other mental health challenge. Sure, the extroverts out there make it look easy and give the illusion that everyone has tons of friends. But just because extroverts get their energy from being around others and can act boisterous in a group, that doesn't mean they have an easy time making close, personal connections (and in fact, extroverts can actually have social anxiety). 

If you find friendships to be a frustrating challenge, know that you are not alone. Just because others don't often admit their difficulties doesn't mean that they don't experience them. Know, too, that you don't have to give up on the idea of having meaningful friendships, even if you're experiencing mental health challenges that are making social life more difficult than it already is. 

How to Make and Maintain Friendships When You Live with Mental Illness

Sometimes, finding friends is a matter of knowing where and how to start. The very first step, of course, is befriending yourself. When you're ready to expand, try one or more of the following tips. Experiment to find what is right for you, doing more of what works and letting go of what doesn't. 

  1. Focus on fit. Look for people who are a good match for your own interests and values. Find them by participating in groups or activities that are in alignment with your likes. Search sites like MeetUp for groups near you, join school clubs or other activities, or volunteer in your community. (Try a humane society, United Way, Boys and Girls Club, etc.)
  2. Start small. This isn't an all-or-nothing, cannon-ball-into-deep-water type of endeavor. Commit to participating in just one activity, perhaps once a week. It's okay to quietly observe for a while to get a feel for the group and the people there. Honor your mental health symptoms, too, and engage in activities on your own terms. Just be sure to be involved regularly, no matter what "regularly" means to you. 
  3. Initiate a conversation. Don't wait for people to come to you. Others might very well have their own anxieties or hesitations that prevent them from making the first move. Some might notice that you've been observing for a while and assume you don't want to connect. 
  4. Start a conversation simply. It can be intimidating to initiate a conversation and hard to know what to say. Start by observing something you've noticed about the other person. You might tell them you liked what they had to say in a class, at a meeting, etc. Or, you could give them a compliment or ask them about something they did.
  5. Listen to what they have to say. Instead of analyzing yourself, overthinking how you're doing, or trying to come up with something to say next, listen fully to what the other person is saying. Use their comments to naturally spark your response, whether that's a story of your own or another question. 
  6. Offer to help. Sometimes, offering to lend a hand is a natural ice breaker and conversation starter. Hold a door for someone if their hands are full, and ask if they'd like you to carry something. If, during an activity, someone mentions that they're struggling with something or are facing a big task, tell them you're available to help if they need it. 
  7. Give it time. Not every conversation or offer to help will lead somewhere. It isn't a sign of rejection. Consider that maybe they'd love to take you up on your offer but don't want to impose or that they don't know how to continue a conversation that you've started. You might discover that you don't have enough in common with the other person and want to move on. The idea is to be patient and persistent. You're making connections even if they don't instantly lead to a deep friendship. 

Should You Disclose Your Mental Illness?

This is a common question among people living with mental health challenges. Some people feel obligated to tell others about their mental health experiences so they appear honest and trustworthy. Others might feel embarrassed or fear rejection because even though societal attitudes are improving, there's still a stigma around mental illness. Each individual has their own unique reasons for sharing openly or keeping the subject of their mental health out of the friendship. I invite you to tune into the video for some thoughts that might help you decide what is right for you.

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2021, May 12). 7 Tips for Making Friends When You Live with Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, July 27 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/mentalhealthforthedigitalgeneration/2021/5/7-tips-for-making-friends-when-you-live-with-mental-illness



Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She delivers workshops for all ages and provides online and in-person mental health education for youth. She has shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, summits, print and online interviews and articles, and at speaking events. Tanya is a Diplomate of the American Institution of Stress helping to educate others about stress and provide useful tools for handling it well in order to live a healthy and vibrant life. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Lizanne Corbit
May, 12 2021 at 7:19 pm

Having a good friend circle, even just a couple of close ones can be so beneficial for our mental health and overall wellbeing. This is a lovely read. I particularly love the reminders to start small, initiate conversation (this can be a hard one or one we underestimate), and give it time. Beautiful.

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