Hey! It’s me. I know, this might come as a shock. Maybe you don’t even think that I exist – surely none of your friends have any kind of mental illness, right? I mean, everyone’s “depressed,” but no one you know has Depression. Well, I hate to break it to you, but you’re dead wrong. In 2017, 29% of women in Utah and 16.1% of men reported having doctor-diagnosed depression. That’s about 1 in 4 women, and 1 in 5 men. So now that you know you’ve probably got a Mentally Ill Friend, I bet you’re wondering why that matters, and why I’m harassing you about it in the first place. Here’s the thing: mental illness isn’t exactly something people are super comfortable talking about, especially with people who don’t have one. Nobody really enjoys telling people about their diagnosis, and some people do everything in their power to make sure no one around them knows.
That’s where I come in! I’ve got no shame! I’ll talk about my diagnoses until the sun explodes; I’ll scream from the rooftops that I have Major Depressive Disorder and ADHD and generalized anxiety. Why? Because there are people who won’t (or can’t), and there are things those people need but won’t (or can’t) ask for. And there are people (like you) who want to help their friends, even if you can’t necessarily understand what they’re going through. So whether you know they have a diagnosis or not, I’m here to give you some quick tips on things that your mentally ill friend might be experiencing, or feeling, or needing. So let’s start with some basics:
Give your friend a break.
Look, obviously if someone is being a bad friend, you shouldn’t just put up with it, especially if they’re walking all over you, or hurting your feelings, or being purposefully mean. However, living with mental illness is really hard. Sometimes it feels like walking around with a 10-pound weight attached to each of your limbs and still trying to keep up with everyone around you. So if your friend isn’t necessarily being as attentive as you need or seems flaky or is taking more alone time than usual, there will be times that you just need to give ‘em a break. Let them be a crappy friend for, like, a week. You can acknowledge it to them, say, “Hey, you’ve been treating me pretty poorly, but I think you’re having a bad mental health week, so I’m gonna give you a break and hope you feel better next week.” BOOM you just saved your friend a good 2 days of shame spirals and unending guilt.
Realize they probably see life differently than you.
Part of living with a mental illness is adapting to survive. Especially if they lived undiagnosed for a long time, their perception of existence is probably skewed. Mental illness can stunt growth (figuratively and literally), so sometimes your friend will have a really hard time with something that you think is super basic, like asking for help in a store or walking through a crowded train station. Maybe you’ll experience something together, and when you talk about it later you and your friend have completely contrasting experiences, even though you were in the same place at the same time; maybe your friend saw that interaction as super hostile, while you saw it as a totally normal conversation. Be patient with your friend – they probably know their thinking is flawed and are working on changing their perceptions, but maybe today is just a particularly hard day and this task or experience is too much for them. If they ask for you to talk to the salesperson for them, or take an Uber instead of the train, or walk them through the conversation you just had, your willingness to help may allow them to overcome their own flawed thinking and change their perception.
Sometimes tough love is necessary.
Mental illness loves telling people that they can’t help themselves, that their situation is hopeless and there’s no point in trying to get better or improve their lives. When your friend is in a deep pit, they may give in to the voice of their mental illness telling them that there is no way for them to get better, so they’ll stop trying. Whether that means they stop taking care of themselves physically (not showering, not eating), mentally (not going to therapy, not taking their meds), or they start pushing the people around them away. When the going gets tough, sometimes all you can do is tell your friend that they’re setting themselves up for disaster. You cannot carry your friend through their mental illness. You can’t cure them – no one can!! They can wallow, and sit in their despair for as long as they want, but you don’t have to sit there with them. Sometimes you’ve got to look your friend in the eye and tell them that you’re going to shower and go outside and they’re welcome to join you, but you are not going to commiserate with them because it’s unhealthy. And sometimes, that’s all you can do.
Obviously I can only really speak about my experience as a mentally ill person. However, considering I’m your best friend I think it’s pretty appropriate that I communicate to you the best ways to care for the other people in your life who are mentally ill. But this isn’t a One Size Fits All situation – everyone is unique and has unique needs. So the best advice I can give you, first and foremost, is to ask your friends what they need. Fall back on generalized advice when they don’t know what will help – it’s worth a shot if you can give it one. But most of all, look out for yourself and your own mental health. You can’t pour from an empty cup.