When thinking about how my friends and family have cared for me and helped me over the past 7 years, I often neglect their own views on how they think what they have done has impacted me and my recovery. I thought it would be interesting, therefore, to ask them directly how they feel they have helped or hindered my efforts to get better and if they have any advice for others who may be struggling to give the right support to a housemate, friend or family member…
“Coming to university four years ago, I didn’t have any friends beforehand who had suffered from mental health issues, and our accommodation was really awful. My experience, in the first week you were having a really bad episode and myself and [our other flatmate] went to the Halls of Residence wardens for support – they said that you weren’t our problem. I remember thinking, ‘she’s not a problem, she’s unwell!’ They made us feel really stupid for going. As a human being, you have a duty of care to others. I would say; be compassionate, try to understand (you probably won’t), and be there for that person whenever they need you. I’d also like to add that I think you’ve made me a more compassionate person.”
“I think, something I have struggled with in giving advice, is that I always try to find something logical to say, but sometimes there isn’t a logical answer, and there isn’t a solution to the problem, and the best piece of advice could be just listening to them. If you don’t understand a mental illness, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, it just means you don’t have any personal experience of it. You should never judge somebody, you can’t just assume that everybody feels the same as you, you’ve got to understand that we’re all different. One more thing is that it’s hard to deal with by yourself. If a friend confides in you about their mental health try to encourage the person with the issue to reach out to as many people as possible, such as a Dr or a counsellor, because it’s a big burden to handle by yourself. They should also try to be as open as possible, like in your own house you can’t pretend to your housemates there isn’t an issue. Try to be as understanding and as patient as possible. It’s not going to be just one day where somebody is sad, it’s an ongoing problem and it won’t go away by you ignoring it.”
“But I always do the wrong thing! I always like to distract people from their problems. Laughter. Getting them out of the house, going for walks… Not letting them get into a bubble. Be that person they know they can always call to go for a coffee or something. You can’t help but say the wrong thing sometimes, but try to show that you care.”
“Walking around Lupton with you at 2am. You had really bad insomnia in first year, I didn’t sleep great either. We used to make huge midnight snacks of half a bag of chips and fish fingers and I think you knowing that you weren’t alone with your mind in the middle of the night really helped you. There’s nothing worse than feeling lonely in the night. I tried to make you aware; from the first time you told me you had Depression on the second day of Freshers that I would always try to be there for you. I think that’s the most important thing.”
“So from my perspective, I would say, because we experienced mental ill health at the same time, I think it was mutually beneficial (if you would agree), that we had one another for support, but also that we could be in a position where we felt useful to someone else. When you’re not mentally well you feel quite hopeless and also quite selfish, and when you know that you are helping somebody else it makes you feel like you’re making a difference to something outside of yourself. When you were having a bad day, you would gently chastise me if I didn’t open up myself if I was having problems, and likewise for me: it was a reciprocal support. I felt that that was helpful, to focus on someone else, but also to have someone who acknowledged what I was going through, and who I felt I could be open with.”
From my point of view, each and every one of the above quotes are taken from some of my best friends I have ever had the privilege of knowing. I know and understand that people make mistakes, and sometimes the wrong thing will be said, it can be awkward and on many occasions I have felt like a burden to my housemates. But I know that these people wouldn’t be in my life if they didn’t love and care for me, and that is something I have to remind myself every so often! I’ll make a short personal list of things that I have appreciated more than ever (although I didn’t appreciate some of them at the time…!)
- Taking my duvet and pillow off my bed and putting it in the corridor to force me into the shower and to Uni
- My year abroad housemate made me a Happy Jar for my 21st She filled a giant gherkin jar of cute quotes to pick out and read when I’m sad.
- Being spooned on my bed whilst crying hysterically for about an hour.
- Having the boy I am seeing respond with nothing but respect and calmness whilst I briefly explained my history of mental illness. Then having him remain calm when I cried a few hours later because I hadn’t explained properly and him sitting listening until I finished and responding with “I understand why you were upset now”. He gave me a hug and we moved on.
- Not being (completely) judged when I didn’t shower for four days. Ok, there was a bit of judgement, but my flatmates were such that we could joke about it.
- When I came out of hospital in March (see B is for Borderline Personality Disorder: http://www.thegryphon.co.uk/2015/10/mental-health-a-z-b-is-for-borderline-personality-disorder/ ), my housemate (Happy Jar housemate) helped me pack, cooked me dinner and booked my flights… She looked after me. That’s what somebody with poor mental health needs: care, compassion and empathy.
I am aware that I am incredibly lucky to have such fantastic friends around me. I hope that this will help somebody reach out to someone who they believe is struggling, or help somebody struggling verbalise what they think they need in terms of support.