Approximately 1 in 4 people will suffer from mental health issues at some stage of their life. That makes it pretty likely that this will include people in your life – friends, family and people you hold dear. But what do you say to a friend with mental health issues? How can you help someone close to you struggling with mental health? This World Mental Health Day I’ve teamed up with my lovely friend Laura from Five Little Doves – who has suffered with depression, panic, anxiety and an eating disorder in her life – in this honest discussion of what to say and do to help a friend with mental health issues.
Could you share some of your thoughts and feelings about living with mental health issues?
Gosh, where to start! I have lived with mental health issues since my teens when, completely out of nowhere, I suffered from depression. I think as with many illnesses, one issue can spiral into another, and before you know it you are trapped in a vicious cycle of self doubt, self loathing, and sadly, even self harm. By the time I hit my twenties I was depressed, I had panic and anxiety disorder, I was anorexic and later developed antenatal and postnatal depression.
It can be so hard to know what to say and do when a friend has mental health issues…what are your words of advice to someone trying to figure this out?
Say something. Seriously, that is always my main advice. You’d be surprised at the number of friends who tried to ignore what was happening, either by avoiding broaching the subject or by avoiding me altogether. At a time when I desperately needed help, I felt increasingly isolated and alone. Had just one friend sat me down and told me, we are worried about you, or asked me how they could help, perhaps I wouldn’t have withdrawn myself further.
Just how important are supportive friends to people struggling with mental health?
So important, as I touched on above. I think the worst thing for anyone suffering mental illness is for them to feel alone, it simply fuels their issues and their belief that they are not worthy, in whatever way. When my anxiety was bad, or my mood very low, or even when I was struggling to eat in public, I would cancel on friends or leave early to go home, or make excuses why I couldn’t go out for a meal, and instead of trying to understand that, many of my friends simply stopped inviting me at all. That really hurt, and still does.
Often people can be quick to dismiss or may respond negatively when they find out a friend is suffering with their mental health.Why do you think that is?
I think that is completely down to ignorance. I think for many people, mental illness is still such a huge taboo and they feel so uncomfortable talking about it or seeing it as an illness at all.
How can we move past our own uneasiness surrounding mental health?
We can educate ourselves. I think that is the solution to so many of the problems in our world. With 1 in 4 people developing mental illness at some point in their lives we need to realise that this isn’t something to feel uneasy about or embarrassed, it’s affecting a quarter of the population every single day.
Everyone is different but how would you suggest someone responds when a friend tells them they are struggling with mental health?
I would suggest that you simply offer your love and support, that’s the best you can do to help someone. Giving someone a hug, holding their hand, wiping away their tears and telling them we will get through this together, that’s all we want to hear.
And what should they absolutely not say?
“What have you got to be depressed about?”
“You’re just having a bad day…”
“You’re being selfish…”
I have heard countless comments over the years, from friends, family, strangers and even health care professionals. None of these things are helpful and simply belittle our illness and fuel our issues.
What are some of the do’s of helping a friend with mental health issues?
I think the nicest thing any of my friends has ever done for me was to go to the library, take out a book on anorexia, and read it cover to cover in the hope of understanding a little of what I was going through. She visited me several times when I was hospitalised over it, and although she was unable to make me better, hearing that she was at least trying was exactly the support I needed.
And the don’ts?
Don’t make somebodies mental illness your issue. This was something I experienced a lot, and still do. I had friends who actually felt hurt and even angry towards me for changing. I began to feel on edge every time I was going through a bad patch, worried that I would upset them if I even mentioned my issues. Mental illness is such a personal journey and you literally have to do whatever it is you need to do to survive, others need to be accepting of that.
Anything else you would like to add?
I would say that no matter what you are going through, or how bad things seem, one day, maybe in years from now, you will look back and realise that everything you went through made you the person you are today. I have no regrets about my struggles, then or now, and although I will never be completely free of my mental health issues, I am stronger and kinder for having gone through them.
I really hope the above Q&A has been helpful to anyone who is concerned about what to do and say to a friend or loved one experiencing mental health issues. If you have any questions or concerns please do feel free to share them in a comment below and please visit Laura’s blog Five Little Doves for more on on her journey with mental health.