We all know someone who struggles with their mental health. We all love someone who struggles with their mental health. Society has worked hard to break down some of the stigma surrounding these struggles, but we’ve still got a long way to go before everyone feels able to talk freely about their problems without facing judgement or fear. As the friend of someone struggling with their mental health, you can make their life easier.
The first time someone asked me if I was depressed, I became defensive and laughed it off. But it’s always better to try and have the conversation with someone you think might be struggling, no matter how awkward it feels, or whether your concerns are recognised. I knew somewhere deep down that I was miserable, and my friend’s question forced me to think about it. I don’t know if it made it easier to then open up to my parents and seek help, but it felt like a start – a recognition that I didn’t have to keep pretending.
But how to broach this awkward and difficult initial conversation with someone you're worried about? I won't lie, it requires a lot from you, as their friend or family member. You need to really listen to the person if and when they choose to open up. Don’t try and tell them that you know what they mean, or that you’ve felt sad too – let them tell you everything they’re experiencing, in full, without bringing it back to your own experience. Don’t tell them that it’s a phase, or that they need to try X,Y or Z remedy. You probably want to reassure them that these horrible feelings will pass, but try not to come off as though you’re making light of the problem.
Listening may be invaluable – having someone who knows and cares for you make the time to listen to your darkest thoughts is such a relief – but sometimes a person who’s struggling won’t offer up their innermost thoughts so easily. Sometimes they won’t even know how bad things are themselves. This is hard for a person who’s watching someone they love flounder. Being British, we often talk to others about our concerns – "Sophie seems depressed, is she drinking too much? Let’s ask her round for dinner" – without ever being explicit with the subject of said concern.
It is worth remembering, though, that many people with mental health problems won’t ever have had a chance to have an honest conversation about their feelings – out of fear of judgement, or a worry you’ll distance yourself from them if they do. I used to make light of my issues, acknowledging them after a while, but making fun of myself just in case my friends thought I was 'too' damaged, 'too' ill to be friends with. If you are trusted enough to be taken into confidence, follow through. This might mean staying over with your friend when they’re having a particularly difficult time – panicking, depressed or manic (my sister did this many times, and I cannot tell you what a relief it was to have her there and be able to fall asleep without panic taking over) – or dropping plans to sit in a pub with them while they cry.
You might offer to go to the doctor with them if they’re anxious about it, or really take the time to learn about their illness – be it anxiety or bipolar – so that you know the pitfalls and don’t echo the stereotypes. People who understand anxiety and OCD and are able to talk to me easily about them have my undying gratitude – it saves me from feeling like I have to explain my issues, and it means I feel less alone. Educate yourself about any needed medication and its possible side-effects. Mental health drugs still carry a huge stigma and we need to be able to talk about them freely, like we would about antibiotics.
Sometimes you might be forced to make hard calls – if you notice a friend really falling down a hole, you might need to decide whether their parents need a phone call, or whether you might need to take them to hospital. If it’s a family member, you might be the person who takes on even more responsibility. All of this is scary and it might feel like a big burden to carry, but sitting by passively because you don’t want to intrude isn't going to help.
So many of us who battle mental health problems face disappointing reactions from those we love – however well intended. They may be going through their own stuff, of course, but this can exacerbate the isolation that mental illness often brings about. Feeling like even those closest to you don’t understand what you’re going through is a very lonely sensation indeed. If your own mental health is in a good place, step up, check in regularly and be your friend’s shield when they’re low.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful – I know that being friends with someone with mental health issues can be hard, sad and frustrating – but we all need to do more to help. You might think you’ve done what’s required when you give a friend the opportunity to get it all out. But ask yourself – is there anything else you can do? So many of us will face mental illness in our lives, and one day it might be something you experience too. To truly break the stigma still surrounding matters of the mind, we all need to be good allies. You might never know what a difference you’ve made, but trust me, the person you help will never forget it.
Jog On: How Running Saved My Life by Bella Mackie is out now, published by William Collins, £12.99.