What It Is Like Having Friends With Mental Illnesses

Having friends with mental illnesses can be daunting and worrying, especially when you do not have the knowledge to give good support and advice. It is even more challenging when you want to be close but they push you away due to the fear of “bothering others” or merely just wanting to be alone. We both have dealt with friends who have mental illnesses and wanted to share our own perspectives.

We both have dealt with close friends and family members who have:

Michelle: mainly anxiety and depression but some substance abuse disorder and suicidal ideation.  

Jenny: eating disorders, PTSD, anxiety, depression, substance abuse disorder (both drugs and alcohol), bipolar disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, schizophrenia, suicidal ideation and ADHD.

The hardest situation we dealt with was:

Michelle:

When I was a high school senior I started to get involved with a boy who had a mental illness, which I was unaware of. Everyone said, “Don’t do it,” he breaks hearts just as fast as glass shatters. I was 17, vulnerable and naïve, seeing a soul that I thought I could mend; as if I could make him happy for more than just fleeting moments. When I met him, I would have never known about his mental illness. From afar he was the theater kid who talked so effortlessly on and off the stage. Up close, he was so intelligent it blew my mind. He smiled, laughed and sat across from me in my Spanish class and sweet talked the teacher to distract him from the real material we had to cover. Glances and curved smiles across the table.

We started talking and at first it was fun and perfect and it felt right. Late night phone calls, followed by goodnight texts, watching movies like Moonrise Kingdom and locked eyes that were so sure. Park walks, held hands, forehead kisses; a culmination of what is perceived as normal. The more I got to explore his mind, the more I realized how sad it could sometimes get. He was going through so much and I had no idea how to stop the river of thoughts he hated from overflowing. What people saw as closed-off and mysterious, I saw as beautiful and fragile -- something I would like to fix.

There would be seemingly good days where he would hide his depression all too well and there would be bad ones. But the fake good days outnumbered the bad, as depression was something that we liked to pretend was not happening. When the bad days came it was a guessing game as to whether he would slam the door or let me enter the threshold to his emotions. When I was left waiting on the other side of the door, all contact was shut off. Texts would not be responded to for days on end, in person he would ignore me and talk to other friends who “understood.” It was hard not to think it was all my fault. What did I do? What is he doing? Can I fix it? I wanted to scream at him and cry all at the same time, but like a broken record, I kept thinking give him time, he will come back when he is ready. On the good days, we would sit and talk for hours. He would open up about his feelings which I knew was challenging. We were serious, then laughing and everything was okay.

But this never-ending cycle of contact to none at all felt like it was breaking me too much. His mind tricks were NOT fair. He was depressed and suicidal and as much as I tried to pick at his brain to understand his thoughts, I just couldn’t. The hardest part was I would never be able to comprehend what it would be like to struggle with depression. When you are dating someone, THEY should be your constant support and go-to. I do not blame him for having depression, but I was unprepared for his bad days, and did not know what I was getting myself into. It is certainly possible to date someone who has mental illness(es), but as a 17 year old I wasn’t ready for the highs and lows that came with it.

Jenny:

My best friend struggles with severe depression along with other mental illnesses and deals with constant suicidal ideation. I remember the first time she was sent to the hospital for being a threat to herself. It was a Friday night and I just finished watching a school play. I was talking to my old friends when I received a text message from her mom. It simply stated that although she is in the psych ward, she is fine. Early that day, I noticed that she didn’t go to school and I got extremely worried because the day before, she was under immense pressure. I texted her multiple times on that day only to get no responses. All of the what-if questions scrambled around my head until I got that text message when everything stopped. I stood there in shock and didn’t know what to do. It killed me knowing that because she was in the hospital for a few days, I couldn’t talk to her to see how she was doing.

That wasn’t the first time. Over the past year, my best friend texted me several times saying that she had either attempted or contemplated suicide. One time, she ended up legally dead due to alcohol poisoning and luckily was brought back to life. Right before finals during fall semester, my best friend texted me saying that she was going to rehab for six months. It was cold that night but I didn’t care. I ran out of my room with no gloves or hat, went to the fountain and sobbed for what felt like an hour. I didn’t want to go back to my room but I had to because I no longer could feel my hands and face.

Since then, she is now in her fourth rehab, I believe, and her program isn't over until around January of 2019. The last time I saw her in person was last November. Every single day, I think of her and my heart aches even more. As much as I want to be with her, she is in Texas and has very limited access to communication devices. I haven’t heard her voice since January. At most, I email her twice a week and the conversations are always very brief because her program is strict with time. I can’t wait until she comes home so I can give her the longest, hardest hug ever. All I can do right now is be her cheerleader and encourage her to better herself.

Advices/tips that we found to work and not work:

Michelle:

I think the most important thing you can do for someone is listen. Even if you feel as though you have no idea how you are going to respond or be able to help, your presence is valued. People may push you away but if there is anything I have learned from being close to multiple people who struggle with mental health, don’t leave the people you love alone. In terms of responding to what they tell you, whether it is something big or small, always tell them that they matter and whatever they are worried about also matters. Do NOT write their problems off as if they are trivial or stupid. This may send them into a further downward spiral and that is not what you want. Finally, ask if they want your input. Often, we state our opinions without even realizing that maybe someone just wants someone to hear them. If they do, do not act like you are a professional but rather tell them the knowledge you know or tell them you know someone who can help.

Jenny:

What doesn't help whatsoever is avoiding someone's struggles. Someone may want to suppress their pain and pretend that they are fine. However, they are not fine. It is reality for them and the longer they avoid their issues, the more their problems will build on and worsen to the point where they explode. If you notice someone being secretive or different, talk to them privately and encourage them to seek help. The key word is encouraging, not forcing them. If they decide to not get help, you have to support their decision. Only they can decide for themselves when they are ready to better themselves.

What also doesn't benefit someone is fixating on or pointing out their scars. People with mental illnesses normally try to hide their internal turmoil but scars on the other hand are not always easy to cover up. Be aware that people with scars are most likely are self-conscious about them. Thus, don't grab their arms and point them out. Don't bring up the topic unless they are comfortable enough to initiate the conversation themselves and when they are, don't judge them. It's very hard to understand why people self-harm and sometimes, people themselves don't know why too so when they open up, it takes a lot of courage, so just listen to them with a good heart when they do.

What helps is recognizing that while they have mental illnesses, they should not be treated any differently. Don't treat them as they are fragile, crazy or dangerous but rather recognize that they have bad days, like the rest of us, only they experience them more frequently. Realize that they may not want to talk about their experiences and that it is perfectly fine. What also helps is reminding people that you are there for them and that they are not alone nor will they ever be alone. Everyone experiences mental illnesses differently and thus while understanding them can be difficult, the best you can do is reach out to them every now and then and make sure that they're feeling and doing okay. Avoid being sympathetic and rather strive to be emphatic. Meaning when people reveal their struggles, do not feel sorry nor mention that you apologize for their struggles. Instead, ask considerate questions and show that you care and want to relate to them.  

The life lessons that we have learned about and from those with mental illnesses:

Jenny:

Firstly, definitely one of the most difficult things I had to come into terms with is that no matter how much effort you put in to essentially fix and save a person, only they can save and change themselves if they want to. Thus, it is crucial to remember that carrying other people's loads is virtually impossible when you have your own burdens to carry.

Secondly, don't blame yourself. I know I did for the longest time. When one of my best friends at the time confided in me with her eating disorder struggles and when my best friend (previously mentioned) began to self-harm and attempt/ponder about suicide quite a bit, I felt the weight and pressure to alleviate their pain-I couldn't. As much as I tried, I'm not a professional therapist and I don't have the training to help them. I can be their friend and support them, but I simply don't have the capacity to get rid of their mental illnesses.

Thirdly, as I also have mental illnesses, having friends with mental illnesses is either beneficial or harmful. When I had my first panic attack, it was towards the end of senior year. During that time, my physical manifestations of anxiety were overwhelming and I felt like I couldn't breathe the majority of the time. I was sitting in my AP psychology class with my best friend when my heart rate kept climbing higher and higher so I started to freak out, hence my panic attack. Shaking, hyperventilating and sobbing, my best friend knew exactly what to do. She hugged me and told what to do-  which was to pick out five items from your surroundings and focus on them. I was eventually able to calm down due to her help. I'm eternally grateful for what she did on that day. On the other hand, having friends with mental illnesses can worsen your own issues. One of my best friends at the time was recovering from her eating disorder when mine began to worsen. Eating disorders are very competitive in nature so as you can imagine, we were toxic to each other. Whenever it seemed like I wasn't trying to recover, she would get extremely angry at me, making me feel worse. She ultimately at one point threatened to not be my friend anymore if I kept engaging in my disordered behaviors. I simply couldn't just stop so this created a lot of stress for me. I ultimately had to unfriend and block her because over time, she kept beating me down through yelling at me and criticizing me endlessly. I lost a best friend and gained a bully. I should have done it sooner but I kept trying to convince myself that she was merely this way because of her own problems. However, I had to deal with the harsh truth that mental illnesses are not an excuse to allow someone to treat you poorly- sometimes it is better to let them go rather than holding on.

Fourthly, having friends with mental illnesses can be emotionally scarring. Before my best friend entered rehab, the thought of “Is she dead?” constantly ran through my head. For days on end, she wouldn’t respond to any of my text messages and I couldn’t help but think that she was already in the morgue. Because of the experience of dealing with almost losing someone I love several times, I am now afraid to label people as my best friends. I am afraid of becoming closer to people only to lose them and consequently, I push myself away every time I get slightly close. I am scared of the pain of knowing a lot about someone’s struggles and dark thoughts. I am afraid to confide in people as my now-bully held my flaws against me- I trusted her and in the end, I lost trust in myself. The most important thing to realize is that while it is important to support others, caring about yourself is critical. Sometimes, it is okay to take a break to recuperate and reflect on how to help the person without becoming drained and burned out yourself.

Michelle:

I think Jenny described it perfectly. I firmly believe that you cannot and will not fix someone. All you can do is be their support, and unfortunately no magic force will pull them out of the deep dark hole they may stuck in. Along with that, never blame yourself for the way someone acts. I know for me, that is something that I would constantly believe. The belief that I was doing something wrong or caused them to be in a depressive or anxiety ridden state became a vicious cycle. Mental illnesses have to do with chemical imbalances in the brain. I reiterate this to myself constantly because sometimes logic helps me realize that I didn’t cause them to be that way. However, it is also important to be conscious and respectful of people’s triggers.

Secondly, if someone told you something concerning, tell someone you trust. I used to see this as breaking someone’s trust, but you really could be their savior in the end. For example, one of my closest friends has been struggling with anxiety and depression for a couple of years now. One day, I was on Skype with her and my other best friend as she told us about her suicidal thoughts such as intentionally walking in front of cars hoping to get hit. After finishing the chat, my friend and I were scared and didn’t know what do. She is our best friend and we definitely did not want to lose her! We both asked our parents for advice, who concluded that we should notify her parents. We called her mom and left messages telling her about our concern for her daughter. Her mom already knew about her daughter’s condition of mental health, but we helped her be more proactive for her daughter. Through speaking out, my friend began to have more regular appointments with psychologists and more much needed attention.

Consequently, sometimes people who struggle with mental health may do things because they don’t know how to ask for help in other ways. Their lashing out or alarming statements may just have a deeper meaning. Try to be aware of the signs people may be giving you and support them in the best way you know how.

How has our perspective on life has changed after interacting with people with mental illness?

Both: We both agree that the mundane parts of life have become of higher value to us. For some people who experience mental illness, actions such as getting out of bed or choosing to think positively about a situation is extremely difficult. We sometimes forget that little things hold high significance and now we appreciate them more, knowing that they can be stripped away from others. We also learned how to handle things day-by-day as opposed to being fixated on the past and future. We cannot change our past and we cannot dictate our future but what we can do is focus on the present moment and notice the beauty in small things, such as flowers blooming during Spring. Instead of worrying about a friend possibly attempting suicide, appreciate that he or she is here today. Instead of expecting the worst to come, be thankful for today being a good day.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, please call the UD’s Center for Counseling (302-831-2141) or the UD’s helpline (302-831-1001). If it is an emergency, call 911 or walk in to the Center of Counseling (nonscheduled emergency appointments are welcomed).

If you are feeling alone, considering joining the Active Minds club or the Friends 4 Friends club for support.