Although awareness of mental health issues thankfully seems to be increasing, when it comes to helping a friend who has confided in you that they are struggling, people are often left at a loss.
Our immediate reaction when a friend shares that they are struggling is to want to make them feel better, so naturally our brains scream out with positive advice and comments. ‘Cheer up’, ‘stay positive’ or my personal favorite – ‘have you ever tried yoga?’. To someone struggling with a mental illness, these comments, while well intended, are some of the worst things that could be said.
A person suffering with a mental illness will want nothing more than to feel better, to regain any sense of positivity or to find some coping mechanism that will help even slightly. However, a mental illness isn’t something you can simply ‘snap out of’. It most definitely isn’t a case of forcing a complete outlook change, and often comments such as ‘stay positive’ can actually make someone feel even worse. To someone who is struggling to get up in the morning, even having a vaguely positive outlook may feel like a distant memory. Whilst we would all want our friend to feel better, we have to recognize that mental illnesses often have complex causes and cannot be recovered from overnight. Encouraging someone to feel more positive can turn into another pressure for them that feels impossible to overcome.
Naturally every person and every friendship is different, so unfortunately there is no set-in-stone recipe for helping a friend that is suffering. However, often, those suffering with mental illness do not want or need advice when they share they are having a tough time, they just want someone to acknowledge how they’re feeling and be there for them.
But how can we ‘be there’ for a friend without advising excessively or trying to ‘fix’ the problem?
Try not to panic.
If someone shares they are struggling, try not to go into panic mode. For example, if someone shares they have unpleasant or suicidal thoughts, you do not need to lock all the doors, shut the windows and set up camp in their room. Often the best way to approach this is to acknowledge that they are not feeling great and offer some company and a distraction until these feelings pass. Maybe a cup of tea and Netflix? If they want to talk, that’s great, if they want to cry, you’ll be there, and often they will feel like saying nothing at all. Assure them that that’s ok too!
Signpost but don’t prescribe help.
There are many services available both within and outside of college to help those with mental health issues, such as the college Welfare Officers, Nightline and the University Counselling service. It is really important that we make everyone in Durham aware of what services are on offer, but ultimately someone has to seek help if and when they are ready for it themselves.
Make people nests!
On World Mental Health Day, I was looking for a light hearted picture to share on Facebook. I came across a cartoon of a conversation between two friends…
‘I don’t know.’
‘How can I help?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Ok. I made you a nest. Do you want to come?’
‘Does that help?’
‘Are you ever coming out?’
‘Ok. Hang on.’
*The last picture shows them both lying under the pile of duvets together*
I know this probably seems silly, but the point here is that often the best way you can help someone struggling with a mental illness is not to overload them with positivity or try to ‘fix’ them, but by letting them know that you are there for them – in whatever shape or form they might need you to be. Check in with them if they are keeping to themselves, but don’t expect someone to want to share every detail of what they’re going through. Sometimes they might just need you to make them a nest!