In sixth-form, I was part of a very close-knit group of five friends. Within two weeks, three were diagnosed with a variety of mental illnesses. Mental Health was woefully under discussed in my school, and it felt taboo -– and this less than five years ago. I didn’t know what to do, why my friends were hurting or how to help. I felt very alone, particularly as the fourth friend had changed schools, so I didn’t see her as often.
These are the pieces of advice I wish someone had told me. Some feel like common sense, but I learnt all of these along the way. The order doesn’t particularly matter, but you’ll probably want to remember/do most of these several times.
1.) Take a minute to breath
When your friend tells you they’ve had a diagnosis, you might feel overwhelmed. Maybe it’s not a diagnosis, but rather you’ve noticed a change in their behaviour and you’re praying they talk to someone professional.
You might feel confused about what they’ve told you, sad they’re hurting, afraid of what this diagnostic means for them, relieved they’re getting help, ashamed you didn’t know what was happening, unsure what to do. The list of emotions goes on.
You’re probably feeling all of this at once. I did. You might not know what to do with all these emotions. I certainly didn’t. You might not know anything about the exact illness, or you might know a lot. It might come out of the blue, or you might have been expecting it. You might be knee-quakingly relieved they’ve talked to someone.
Either way, all the emotions and thoughts are probably crowding into your brain like too many people on the tube. That’s OK.
You love them.
Don’t feel ashamed of this reaction. It’s human and borne out the deep love and bond you have. You would be emotional if they were diagnosed with a physical illness – and you wouldn’t be ashamed of that response. This is no different. So, take a deep breath and ground yourself. Give yourself the permission to sort through these emotions and settle your mind.
This can take some time, and it might involve a lot of tears. Maybe you need someone else with you (more on that in tip 4). For me, I had to pray – to give my fears and sadness to God. This meant, initially, being alone, being able to cry and pour out my love for them.
It’s probably best not to do it when you’re with your friend. It’s personal, and you don’t want them to feel burdened with your emotions. You’re going to be the best judge of this situation, but don’t be afraid to shelve your emotions for now. However, don’t bottle them up. You have to sort through them, but later might be more appropriate.
2.) Get perspective
This could almost be part of tip 1, but I wanted to draw attention to it. Don’t let your emotional response overwhelm the fact that they are the one who’s come to you with their diagnostic. They’ve trusted you with this, so don’t be selfish and make yourself – your response – the centre of the situation.
You might have your own diagnostic, you might not. Either way, keep your situation mentally separate from theirs.
This isn’t to say that you should ignore yourself, and your own care, but it’s to be mindful of them. Don’t treat their situation as this minor issue, but equally don’t consider it an all-consuming storm that is taking over all your interactions with them.
It’s not always easy, but keep yourself, and their situation, in perspective.
3.) Talk to someone
When I get anxious, I have to talk to someone and ‘air’ my concerns. Otherwise, they go round and round and round in my head, steadily getting worse. However, who do you talk to in this situation? You might think this is a betrayal of confidentiality, but man is not an island. There are no circumstances you should have to navigate alone, but you do need to be careful who you confide in.
My criteria were simple:
1.) Someone I trusted who would keep the information confidential
2.) Someone who didn’t know my friends
3.) Someone who either knew how to respond, or would know who to pass me onto
4.) Someone who I could pray with
Obviously, 4.) doesn’t apply for everyone, but it was important for me. All in all, I decided the best person to talk to was a close family friend, who was also one of our youth leaders. Don’t worry if it takes a while to identify this person.
But what about telling your parents? This is particularly pertinent if you’re a young person or living at home. That is for you to decide and judge.
My sister, who is really close with my friends and had friends going through similar things, and I decided early on not to tell my parents. We had our reasons, partly because we were afraid of what they’d say. They knew something was wrong, but not the full extent. However, there got a point when we had to tell them, and it was hard. Very hard -– and led to a lot of ‘why didn’t you say?’ questions.
I wish we’d said something earlier. It was easier once they knew and we weren’t side-stepping questions. Our parents could then make sure we were getting the support we needed to be the best friends we could.
If your parents know your friends well, don’t leave them utterly in the dark. If you don’t want to go into the details –- or don’t think it’s appropriate –- say. They will –- or should –- respect that.
4.) Get advice
I knew almost nothing about mental health, mainly because my school wasn’t very good at talking about it and this was my first encounter.
It goes without saying but a simple Google search is a bad idea. Terrible. As with any health issue. It is both a black hole to be sucked into, and a minefield of incorrect information and inflammatory advice.
Look for established, and well respected, organisations. Mental health charities are a great place to look. Click here for a list of UK-based Mental Health Organisations. Blogs like this one are also great -– though bear in mind they are person-specific. No one is the same, nor are their illnesses.
5.) Talk to them
This might be your first step. It’s probably the most important but I wanted to start with the personal tips first -– the ones to help you balance yourself and your response.
Talk to your friend, as if you’d never heard they’ve had a diagnostic. Ask them what they need and want from you. Don’t assume you –- a person not in their situation -– knows best. Your friend knows what will help them best. Then put as much of what you’ve been told into practice.
All the usual disclaimers apply here; don’t do anything dangerous; don’t help or facilitate them to do something dangerous; if you think they’re at risk, tell an appropriate person.
6.) Don’t excuse away behaviour
My final, and most controversial, piece of advice. One insisted on by one of my friends.
Humans, generally, have a habit of devolving the blame from themselves. We hate admitting we’re at fault. All of us, including me. I’ll be the first to stick my hand up and admit it.
I am conscious that, if I blame my period for my bad mood, all I’m doing is pretending I couldn’t stop myself snapping at my sister. I could. Every single time, I could stop myself. It’s dangerous, because if I get used to pretending it’s not my fault then it becomes easier and easier to explain it away at other times.
And then what? How do I reclaim control over my behaviour after pretending it’s not my fault? I don’t want to face up to the fact that I’ve hurt my sister, so I say it’s out of my control. And it becomes more and more outside of my control because it’s becoming more ad more of a habit. It’s a slippery slope.
I know I’ll get a lot of angry comments about this, but it has to be said. This doesn’t just apply to period or mental health, but anything being used as an excuse to put away the responsibility for personal behaviour.
Think about it from the perspective of the person on the receiving end, being barraged with comments you’re not even willing to apologise meaningfully for. Saying “I’m sorry, it’s [insert excuse]” has never bean an apology that feels real to me. To apologise, means to take the responsibility and try to mend your ways.
What does it do to that person? They can only put up with so much meanness before they decide the friendship isn’t worth investing in anymore. A sister living under the same roof has less
chances to disconnect than a friend only seen in the rush and bustle between classes or on rare days you meet up for a coffee. Also, you’re hurting them. That’s never OK.
I’m here to talk about tips for supporting friends with mental illness, not a critique of the human condition. So, how do you support a friend if this happens? You bring it to light.
Obviously, this is a hard thing to bring up -– and talk about. We will be defensive about it when challenged, so tread carefully. Talk about it in a considerate, non-accusatory way in private. Something as simple as ‘I would appreciate it if you used a calmer tone when you’re upset/if you didn’t shout/etc’.
If you’re not sure, what parents you think are great at managing stroppy children. Parents might be better at this as they (hopefully) have had practice with their children. I certainly have learnt a lot about diffusing situations and responding calmly to angry people from mine.
If they respond badly, don’t push the point. You’re not their parent. Leave it and move the conversation on, but don’t be afraid to bring it up another time. There is a point where you’ll have brought it up too much, but hopefully it doesn’t come to that.
Those are the things I wish I’d known when I learnt my friends had been diagnosed with mental illness. What advice did you wish you’d been told? Please tell us -– there is probably someone else who’d love to know.
This post was written and contributed by Sifa Poulton.