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How to Support a Friend Who Suffers From Mental Illness

How to Support a Friend Who Suffers From Mental Illness
Written by Jennifer Landis

While it’s not up to you to diagnose someone, these are all signs you can be on the lookout for.

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,Featured photo by Katie Treadway

According to the National Institute for Mental Illness (NAMI), as many as one in five adults in the United States suffers from some form of mental illness. To put that in numbers, that’s nearly 44 million people, and the number is growing every year.

Chances are you’ve got at least one friend who’s been diagnosed with depression, anxiety or another mental illness at some point in their lives. You may not even know it, and if you do know, it’s likely that you don’t know how you’re supposed to react. If you’ve got a friend who suffers from mental illness, here are some tips to help you support them and be the best friend you can be.

Know What Mental Illness Is        

Mental illnesses are not often discussed because they have a negative stigma attached to them. This stigma leads others to think a person who suffers from mental illness is somehow less, that it’s their own fault or that they’re consistently dangerous to themselves or others.

The first, and arguably most important, thing you should do to support your friends with mental illness is to divest yourself of everything you think you know. Ignore all those portrayals of mental illness you see on television or in the movies — they are almost always exaggerated to enhance the drama of the piece. If you’ve ever developed an opinion on mental illness, forget it. Start with a clean slate and be willing to learn.

Learn the Signs of Mental Illness

The next thing you should do to help support your friends is learn the signs and symptoms of mental illness. These symptoms include things like:

  • Irrational anger or mood swings
  • Antisocial behavior and isolation
  • Excessive substance abuse
  • Hallucinations
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts and tendencies

While it’s not up to you to diagnose someone, these are all signs you can be on the lookout for. Things like your best friend canceling on you all the time aren’t necessarily signs of mental health concerns, but your best friend canceling because they can’t even get out of bed would be a warning sign. Educate yourself on the different signs and symptoms of mental illnesses and you’ll be better prepared to help.

Just one thing to remember — and we say this with the kindest thoughts in mind — don’t preach. Don’t think you know more about someone’s diagnoses than they do.

Let Them Know You’re Here

The biggest thing you can do for a friend or family member is let them know you’re there for them. Just be someone they can turn to if they’re having trouble with anything from their mental health to their crappy boss. You don’t have to say, “Hey, I know you’ve got a mental illness and I want to help.” Just offer a shoulder to cry on or to carry heavy things, and let your friends know that no matter what, you’re there for them. That support can make a world of difference.

Be a Mental Notepad

If the individual with a mental illness is someone you’re close to, like a roommate or family member, offer to be a mental notepad to help them remember things like doctor’s appointments or medications that need to be taken every day. Things like these are vital for mental and physical health, but they can be easy to forget. If your friends aren’t feeling comfortable transporting themselves to appointments, offer to be their chauffeur for the day and take them anywhere they need to go.

Be Encouraging

This is a trick you can use for all your friends: Be encouraging! Encourage them to follow their dreams, keep up with their hobbies or even just get out of bed and get dressed in the morning. Sometimes it’s easier to keep up with little things like going to the gym or making it to work when you’ve got someone nudging you along.

Plus, if the gym is in your plans, it might actually help! Studies have shown even moderate exercise on a regular basis helps to improve overall mental health by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain and reducing cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. Something as simple as taking a walk every day can be a great way to help improve everyone’s mental health, including your own.

Things to Avoid

When supporting your friend through their mental illness, there are certain things to avoid, including:

  • Saying any of the following: “It’s all in your head,” “Get over it,” “Snap out of it,” or anything that suggests a mental illness is their fault. You wouldn’t walk up to someone with cancer or diabetes and suggest they think their way out of it, would you? Why are mental illnesses any different?
  • Assuming you know more than your friend about their illness.
  • Assume they’re not doing everything they can to get better.
  • Just generally be a jerk.

Don’t assume you know anything until you’ve been told, and make sure you listen to everything they say. This section might seem a little harsh, but the worst thing you can do is just assume you know everything.

Mental illnesses are a difficult road to travel, and your friends will need all the help they can get along the way. Being a supportive friend can be the best thing you can do to make that difficult road a little bit easier to walk. Just be an ear if your friend needs to talk, a shoulder if they need to cry or a strong arm if they need someone to pick them up and help them for a while. You can be all that and more by just being a good friend. For someone suffering from a mental illness, a good friend can be invaluable.

Identity Magazine is all about guiding women to discover their powers of Self-Acceptance, Appreciation, and Personal Achievement. We ask that every contributor and expert answer  the Identity 5 questions in keeping with our theme. Their answers can be random and in the moment or they can be aligned with the current article they have written. In that way, and as a team, we hope to encourage and motivate each other, thus inspiring you to Get All A’s.

1. What have you accepted within your life, physically and/or mentally? Additionally, what are you still working on accepting? Now, we’re talking about resignation, rather stepping into, embraced, and owned.

Today, I have accepted that I can’t be perfect every day. And that it’s okay to take things one day at a time. 

2. What have you learned to appreciate about yourself and/or within your life, physically and mentally? On the other hand OR in contrast, are there elements of who you are that you’re still working on appreciating?

I have learned to appreciate help – from my family, and friends – I don’t have to be super woman.

3. What is one of your most rewarding achievements in life? Tell us not only what makes YOU most proud but also share the goals and dreams that you still have.

I’ve given birth and I’ve run a marathon and those have always been at the top of my list! It is wonderful feeling accomplished, and I am still setting up some new goals to follow. 

4. Of course, we all have imperfections, or so we think. In truth, we are all perfectly imperfect. What are your not-so-perfect ways? Likewise, what imperfections and quirks create who you are—your Identity?

I eat way too much peanut butter. 

5. “I Love My…” is an outlet for you to appreciate and express all the positive traits that make you…well…YOU! In fact, sharing what you love about yourself will make you smile, feel empowered, and uplift your spirit and soul. (We assure you!) Therefore, Identity challenges you to complete the phrase “I Love My…?”

Bangs! I grow them out, and then get sad, and then cut them back in and am so happy again. 

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About the author

Jennifer Landis

Jennifer Landis is tea sipping, yoga loving mom, wife, and healthy living blogger. She enjoys a good run – once she gets past the 3-mile mark. You can check out her blog, Mindfulness Mama or follow her on Twitter @JenniferELandis.

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