How to help a friend
If you have a friend who struggles with a mental health illness, it can be really hard to know how to be a good friend to them. There is a very difficult balance to strike when you want to help somebody without wanting to look like you are trying to fix them. It can also be very difficult to know how to interpret somebody's behaviour, which often changes when a person is experiencing an episode of mental illness.
I have personally struggled and continue to struggle with episodes of depression and anxiety. A catalyst in my road to recovery has been the incredible collection of people around me that have loved me and stood by me. Drawing from their example, I hope to give you some tips in how you can become one of those people for somebody else.
1) Use words of affirmation
Everybody has a head voice that they use to think. When you are mentally ill, this voice turns into your worst enemy, and repeats accusation, fear and shame. As a friend, it is very difficult for you to override this. Unfortunately, it is much harder to listen to somebody else's encouragement than it is to listen to our own criticism.
Which is why it is so important for you to encourage. The more good things your friend hears from you, the more they'll be able to tell themselves that the negative voices are not true. Tell them that you love them. Tell them that you enjoy being around them. Tell them that you miss having them around when they are not able to socialise. Tell them that you are there for them. In the moment, it may not make much difference, but you need to be patient. All those words will gradually build up and even if your friend can't feel it, they will know in their head that you love them and that means a lot.
2) Understand your friend's limits
During an episode, everyday activities can become huge mountains to climb. The mental and physical energy to get out of bed and complete a simple task really can feel like somebody asking you to run a marathon when you've just overcome a week of food poisoning.
Sadly, the everyday tasks are often the things that help a person keep on top of their life. For example, a simple indicator that I am feeling down is that my room is a mess - I love being organised and tidy. Yet often if I am down, one thing that can help me feel a little more in control and on top of things is to have a tidy room. But if I am really down, tidying my room becomes one of those mountains, and I am left to fester in my misery.
So, as a friend, you can help by not expecting any more of your friend than they can manage. Maintain a non-judgemental attitude to whatever situation you might find them in, and do what you can to help them out of that. If your friend was physically ill you would not hesitate to help tidy their room or make them some lunch - consider that these things may be just as big a help to somebody who is mentally struggling.
3) Develop a relationship of honesty and vulnerability
The mind of a person who struggles with mental health can be a very dark place, and often there is a great deal of shame and disgust attached to the things they find themselves thinking about on a regular basis. One of the most significant things in my journey was for somebody to hear the things I was thinking about, and tell me that it was OK.
I was simultaneously embarrassed and terrified by the things going through my mind. A great deal of freedom came from just saying those things aloud to somebody, but to be able to do that I had to trust that this person was not going to think I was pathetic for allowing myself to be paralysed by such an irrational fear. People that gained my trust were those who had demonstrated to me previously that they were not quick to judge or ridicule me. It may take a little time before your friend feels comfortable sharing the darker things in their mind. It is quite important that you prepare yourself to hear a lot of things that you may not necessarily understand. Sometimes these things will be scary, upsetting and confusing to hear - it is important that both you and your friend know that it is the thoughts, and not the individual, that evoke those feelings.
It is common for people with a mental illness to think about harming or even killing themselves, and that can be very difficult to hear, especially for the first time. It is very important that you have somebody supporting you, as well. If your friend has told you something that troubles you, speak to a responsible adult in confidentiality. Organisations such as Mind have helplines that can offer advice to people in your situation: http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/helplines/
4) Just be there
There isn't a silver bullet when it comes to mental health, but if there was, it would be this: be present. We are so desperate to do or say the right thing, that we overlook the very thing of value, which is just to be there. There is something very special about having a friend who is willing to sit beside you without the need to offer you anything or to have anything in return. When I have had friends who are struggling and I have been at a loss as to how to help, I tell myself one very simple thing, over and over - "just turn up". It is these friends who have told me that I have made a difference. And it is those friends who made a difference to me.
You'll never be able to make your friend better, but you can stand by them as they work out their own recovery. It's so hard to see a friend go through mental illness, but good friends are a lifeline to those in need. Look after each other, and look after yourself.