Comment | Mental health – how to support your friends

When someone ‘comes out’ as a person with a mental health problem, the emotional toll is not limited to them. The news can elicit a wide range of emotions in their friends and family, from sadness to disbelief, to relief that everything is out in the open. If someone close to you chooses to tell you about their mental health problem(s), it can be impossible to work out how you ‘should’ react; does sympathy seem false? Is making a joke about it inappropriate? How comfortable are they with questions about their problems? Should you have known all along?

If someone didn’t choose to tell you right away, try not to be offended. This is not about you. This is about the deeply personal struggles of someone close to you, and they could have any reason for not wanting to tell you first or right away. Perhaps they didn’t want to worry you. Whatever the reason, do not take offence.

You don’t have to understand your friend’s mental state to be sympathetic. Things which seem irrational to you could make total sense to someone with mental health problems. On the other hand, some people acknowledge that their thought processes are irrational without being able to escape the consequences of them. Either way, telling someone that they’re being silly, or to just ‘try and cheer up’ or to ‘not make such a big deal’ about something is deeply unhelpful. For comparison, imagine telling someone with a chronic physical condition to just ‘try and get over it’.

With this in mind, it’s normal to get annoyed sometimes. If someone isn’t able to see you when they’ve promised, or do certain things – go to very busy places because it can trigger anxiety, for example – it can feel personal, like they just don’t want to see you or don’t value your time. Being annoyed or upset by this is valid, but it’s important to remember that it isn’t a choice made by your friend. If you need something to be annoyed at, be annoyed for them, not at them. Making a person who is struggling with mental health issues feel bad about what is happening to them will achieve nothing and could do more damage.

Make time for people. Let them talk if they want to. Let them avoid questions if they need to. Be accommodating to the circumstances that they feel most comfortable in and don’t pressure them to do anything they feel is too far from their comfort zone. Remember that they’re still the same person, still your friend, and that they’ll in often appreciate you treating them as normal. You don’t always have to understand, as long as you can be understanding.

Rebecca Shortt

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