As mental illnesses can be extremely isolating, making an effort to prove to your friend that you are with them on their journey can be reassuring. If you don’t show support to your friend, they may feel like this is evidence for the negative beliefs they have about themselves, such as, that they are unlikable or that no one cares about them. However, I understand that, due to the lack of light shone on mental illness, you may not know how to demonstrate to your friend that you are there for them, so here are some tips:
Ask them if there is anything you can do
Offering help will make you seem like a true friend. This will be very specific to the person suffering and their needs. If you are unsure of what they would appreciate, try to think about what the person is struggling with. For example, if the person does not like to travel alone, offer to accompany them to appointments; if the person isn’t eating enough, bring them a casserole or if the person is lonely then make sure you make plans to invite them out with you.
Ask them how they are doing
It might seem a very obvious question but it is so often overlooked. Mental illnesses are rarely acute, meaning that they won’t disappear overnight, so continuing to appear interested in your friend’s health after the initial diagnosis/last severe episode won’t leave your friend feeling forgotten. This will make the person feel important and it could also open up a truly meaningful conversation, as you may be the only person to have shown an interest in them recently. I know that I feel better from sharing my worries but I don’t always feel like it’s acceptable to bring them up, therefore by starting the dialogue the person will feel less of a burden if they have something to get off their chest.
Treat it like a “regular” illness
For example, if your friend has surgery you will bring them a get well card and gift, and maybe even some food – you would never treat their recent illness like an elephant in the room – acknowledge it. The extremely different way that physical illness is treated in regards to mental illness is incredible, but at the end of the day whether your kidneys aren’t producing the right chemicals or your brain isn’t – you will still be in pain. You would never shy away from asking your friend that had bronchitis if they felt better, so don’t feel awkward asking if your friend who has had a flare up of their anxiety if they are doing better now. This is a perfect get well soon gift! It’s motivational and my friend and I always buy mugs for each other.
Make them aware you won’t hold their illness against them
I have a friend that is 100% supportive of what I’m going through and it makes a world of a difference. If I have to cancel plans because I become overwhelmed with being so busy, she not only lets me know that she’s not mad at me for it, but she also sends her wishes that I feel better soon which means a lot. Your friend may cancel plans or act differently in social situations and you need to understand that while it may annoy you, it upsets them a great deal more. Don’t criticise your friend or get angry at them for something they cannot control because they will already be giving themselves a hard time for it.
Take time to learn their symptoms and triggers
Understanding your friend’s illness has a variety of benefits, with the first one being you look like a good friend and overall person. Dedicating some time to ask about your friend’s triggers will prove invaluable, if they have been sexually assaulted then avoid making rape jokes to prevent panic attacks; if they are scared of walking alone at night then never put them in the situation for this to happen. Additionally, keeping an eye out for your friends symptoms will let you recognise whenever they are struggling. If your friend gets too warm when they get anxious and you notice them sweating, take a minute to ask them if they are okay and maybe go for a walk outdoors with them to bring them back to a safe head space. They may feel embarrassed of admitting how they are feeling, especially if they are in a big group, which means you being able to spot their suffering will be of great benefit.
I hope you keep these things in mind as they could be greatly beneficial for your friend. The best advice I have is to start an honest conversation to allow you to gather information which you can use to help support your friend. Everyone is different which consequently means you will have to customise your help to suit them but don’t be afraid of saying something insensitive as they will understand if you are trying your best and have good intentions. A good support network helps mental illness sufferers immensely and you should strive to be a part of that team.