Being There is a series about how to be there for a loved one with mental health needs. These are stories of real people and their friends, family members and significant others—and how their relationship dynamics are changed or shaped by mental illness.
This article’s focus is on being there for a friend with mental illness. I asked people who have friends with mental health needs what it’s like, what they already do, and what they could stand to improve on.
Answers will be coming from 8 respondents, 4 of whom chose to remain anonymous. Most of these respondents said that mental illness affected their friendship to a moderate degree.
This is by no means a guide on how all people with mental illness act, but there were commonalities seen between the situations shared. If these descriptions remind you of a friendship that you have, encourage them to seek professional help, and of course, do your best, within reason, to be there for them. (Which I’m sure you’re doing if you’re reading this.)
More reactive. Peavey’s friend was also his workmate—whom he mentions would have times of moodiness and increased reactivity. Deany says that there is a strain on his friendship caused by him trying to take care of his friend, “especially when he lashes out at me. Still, the bad days are thankfully more sporadic now, and he’s always quick to apologize.”
Strained communication. I.E. says of her somewhat strained friendship, “there are some days when we don’t seem to understand each other, and it then becomes more difficult to communicate… Sometimes, it just becomes a little cold. Kasi nagiging medyo kailangan ng effort (because this necessitates more effort), that [we] would rather avoid than deal.” Since finding out about her friend’s mental illness, Julie mentions, “Our points of conversation have become more serious, and many times I’m not entirely sure how to respond to him, knowing that I have to be careful with what I say and how I interact with him.” Peavey’s work friendship was also strained because of conflicting work attitudes, working on a startup with several internal deadlines and deliverables. The added context of mental illness did not make communicating any easier, and they eventually fell out as friends.
MIA on events or hangouts. Cancelling plans was a common occurrence across responses. An anon mentions that they care deeply about their friend and try their best to understand the situation. “Sometimes they miss gatherings, nights out, et cetera. So it’s kinda sad, but then again, we love them enough not to force them to do anything against their will.”
Excessive dependence on friends for support. An anon shares, “I have to be there for an extended period of time, especially since my friend has suicidal tendencies already. There are times I have to talk to her on the phone for hours on end.” While friends would like to be there for you as much as they can, they are people too and the responsibility of being a constant support system may take a toll on them.
But sometimes, it’s not so obvious. Julie says, “In a way, it doesn’t affect our dynamic since when we’re together, he remains the same goofy, easygoing person I first knew him as. But when he told me about his mental health problems, somehow I could never look at him in the same way again, knowing that beneath what I saw was someone who was struggling.” An anon also shares that his friend’s condition is not so obvious, “but the way he acts shows that he has a really hard time, especially when it comes to dealing with stress and academic requirements.”
Here are insights on how to be there, from people who have had close friendships with people with mental health needs.
Educate yourself on their condition. Every case is different, so reading up on their specific diagnosis and asking them what it’s like may give you insight on their needs. “Understand that their mental illness often affects their behavior,” Peavey mentions.
Be There. As an anon says, “Just being there helps a lot.” This echoes so many of the responses that I named the entire series after this point. Julie emphasizes that this is the most important piece of advice when it comes to dealing with a loved one with mental health needs, giving a specific example: “It could be as simple as asking them how they’re doing today.” Another anon also mentions, “I make myself as available as possible when he has anxiety attacks.” Deany offers emotional support when needed, saying that “I am always there when he needs someone to talk to or a shoulder to cry on.” I.E. mentions that she wishes to be more present: “listen to them, and other times, take their mind off things.”
Listen. This will keep coming up in the Being There series, and for good reason. As mentioned in the previous being there article, it is of utmost importance to listen thoughtfully and not just for the sake of responding.
A lot has been said about listening in the previous article, but non-judgment is also key. Julie says that the dynamic she has with her friend helps both parties process heavier topics without fear of judgment: “Whenever we talk, we’re able to be completely open and straightforward with each other. I’d like to think that’s the best thing I do for him and him for me – that we give each other the opportunity to air out everything we keep inside. I always let him know that I’m always around if ever he needs to talk about something and that what we talk about remains between us.” Peavey echoes the sentiment of non-judgment, saying, “Relationships are not about performance or fitting a certain bill, but meeting each other where you are and choosing to walk together.”
Don’t treat them all that differently. Deany says, “No one wants to feel like a problem to be solved, or a burden to be resolved. They want to feel like people: to be understood, engaged, listened to.” Julie also calls to mind that the original friendship is what’s most important: “It’s important that you still treat them as a person, not as some project or basket case that needs to be fixed. We’ve all got our own problems, and if you begin to realize that maybe you can help each other out and work through things together, I think that’s the best way of saying, ‘I support you.’”
While there two respondents who said that there was trouble reaching out and communicating with friends, it was still considered as the most helpful support system by most of the people with mental health needs who were surveyed:
“My friends, especially my best friend, are the most helpful to me because I don’t feel judgment from them. Just empathy. And they are the most accessible to me, physically and emotionally.” -Sara
“Friends, even though they don’t fully understand my condition, they still manage to make sure I am alright by always finding ways to help me.” -Anon
“Friends and Significant Other. They know my triggers and the signs of an oncoming attack and usually handle it without me having to feel bad about myself.” -Aly
“My closest friends and my boyfriend, have experienced me at my worst and have chosen to love me regardless.” -Alex
“Of all the people who comprise my support network, they’re the ones I can open up to the most.” -Anon
But friends, look out for yourselves as well, and be mindful of your own limitations. An anon admits, “I can understand their needs and I try to help as best as I can, but I’m not a therapist, so I’m not always sure how I should help them.” If you think that your friend has reached a point that they need professional help, the best thing to do is to tactfully tell them so–it is coming from a place of concern, after all.
I.E. reminds us, “Don’t forget to care for your own health as well. Caring for each other can be difficult at times, but ultimately should be for the better of everyone.” As another anon says, “be empathic, but be mindful of your own mental well-being as well. Other people’s negative emotions may get to you too. Understand the dynamic of your relationship so you don’t end up dragging each other down emotionally.” 💌
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