How to be a Life-Saving Friend to Someone Struggling With a Mental Illness
Having a mental illness diagnosis is a frightening, isolating, and sometimes fatal experience. It hurts to have a mental illness, and it hurts to watch someone you love sink into the morass of mental illness.
For those who suffer from such conditions, having a good friend is a huge blessing, even potentially life-saving.
For those who are friends to sufferers, there is a lot you can do to give hope and encouragement, even save a life.
As someone who has been on both sides of the table, I’ve had the dubious privilege of seeing the situation from both perspectives. Here’s what I learned:
If they disappear — don’t take it personally
Jane*, my best friend from high school, began withdrawing from friendships before I even knew she had been diagnosed with an eating disorder. As her condition worsened, she stopped talking to me completely for a couple of years. No calls, texts, or social media interaction. Nada. Zilch.
When I was diagnosed with a crippling anxiety disorder years later, I understood why.
Having a mental illness is confusing, and creates a lot of shame in the sufferer. You don’t know what is going on or why, you don’t know when it will end, or if it will end. You feel alone, and you don’t know how your friends — even your closest friends — will react.
You are afraid they will not understand, that they will reject you, and hurt you…and the sad thing is, sometimes you are right.
For example, when I was first diagnosed, a couple members of my family thought they could “snap me out of it,” by yelling at me to my face, talking about me behind my back, even embarrassing me in front of guests. And another one of my closest friends stopped talking to me as soon as I revealed my diagnosis to her.
I didn’t blame them for their frustration, but at the same time, their behavior hurt. Badly. After that experience, I didn’t dare trust anyone else.
So if you have a friend who has (or who you suspect has) a mental illness, don’t be surprised if they withdraw or try to hide what is going on. Don’t be offended, but be patient with them, and understand that it’s not your fault — they just have a lot of fears to work through.
Don’t ask questions — listen
Although Jane didn’t tell me much when she was in the throes of her disease, we did have a couple of heart to heart conversations when she was stronger. Both times I did my best to listen quietly, without asking questions, and the quieter I was, the more she opened up.
During the early days of my own experience, my mother likewise sat with me on the couch for hours, a blanket wrapped around both our legs, listening to me talk, cry, and just be.
That, out of everything — was THE most helpful thing for me.
Most people suffering from mental illness feel extremely isolated and entirely misunderstood. Giving a person space to work out his or her thoughts in a safe, absolutely non-judgmental place is invaluable.
You will probably be curious about what is going on. That’s natural. And it is good for people to talk a little about what they are suffering, when they are ready.
But do not let curiosity get in the way of compassion.
And be careful what questions you ask.
Do ask “how can I help you?” or “how are you feeling now?” But do NOT ask nosy questions or questions that make people feel worse about themselves (i.e., “why can’t you just snap out of it?”).
For the most part, just listen. Please.
Shower them with unconditional love
Love saves lives. Literally.
Especially if someone you love is suffering from a mental illness.
By definition, people who have a mental illness have minds that are not working properly. Their lives are very different (and much worse) now, than they were, pre-illness. They may feel depressed, hopeless, even suicidal.
At such a time, the best thing a friend can do is remind them that they matter, that they’re loved, that someone cares if they live or die. Be their hope when they have no hope.
Listen if they want to speak. Send them messages to let them know they are not forgotten. Remember their birthday. Let them cry on your shoulder if they have to.
And most importantly: forgive them from the bottom of your heart if they do anything to hurt you — it’s not them, it’s the monster in their mind.
In my case, my mother was and is my biggest source of unconditional love. When I cried, she held me. When I grew frustrated at her, she would apologize for aggravating me. Not “I’m sorry I did something wrong” (because she hadn’t), but “I’m sorry you are hurting.”
And if your friend is currently not communicating with you (see tip #1), one way to show unconditional love is to love those they love.
For example, Jane once mentioned to me that she was concerned about a younger brother who was acting up. So when Jane got sick, I decided to take on the role of temporary big sister, sending her brother Christmas and birthday presents in her stead, adding him to my prayer list, etc.
Since I couldn’t shower love on Jane herself, I showered it on her family for her.
Don’t make it all about their illness
“Retarded” used to be a neutral medical term. In time, it became a derogatory insult simply because people didn’t want to be defined by their “deficiencies.”
It’s the same thing with any mental illness. No one wants to be labeled an “anorexic” an “obsessive-compulsive” a “depressive,” or anything else.
So remind your friend of life outside of the illness. Talk about your mutual acquaintances, hobbies, whatever is going on in your life. Crack jokes, be natural, distract them from their pain.
Your friend is a person, not a “mentally ill person.” Don’t ever forget that, and don’t let them forget that either!
Be persistent, but not pushy
I regret that I was often too pushy with Jane, largely out of ignorance.
Before I knew of her diagnosis, I grew concerned about some of her eating habits, and tried to encourage her to eat. She refused, again and again, finally only acquiescing when I pushed hard.
In retrospect, that was a horrible thing to do, and I wish I hadn’t.
But it took me a while to learn my lesson: when I learned of Jane’s diagnosis, I was so worried about her I called her every week to check up on her. Even multiple times a week. It was too much. She stopped talking to me for a long time.
When I was first diagnosed myself, I realized why.
I also did not want people to talk to or visit me. It got so bad I was even afraid of the doorbell. When people visited, I stayed inside, hiding from them.
At this time, a friend of mine did the best thing when she dropped off small gifts outside my door, emailing me to let me know they were there, but never attempting to violate the sanctity of my space by barging in.
I so appreciated that, and wish I’d been better about doing that with Jane when she was ill.
But if their lives are in danger, INTERVENE!
Pushing Jane to eat and checking on her too frequently was not something I should have done. It hurt our relationship and diminished her trust in me as a friend.
However, no matter how much you value your relationship with your friend — if his or her life is in danger, you must act.
Jane’s condition was first diagnosed when her sibling alerted her parents to the situation, against her will. Jane’s parents were very busy and distracted, so she was able to hide her condition for a very long time, and she might have hidden it even longer had it not been for an observant, caring older sibling.
Another time, when Jane moved away from home and then relapsed, a friend contacted her family and staged an intervention. Jane was furious, but in the end, that move probably saved her life.
You’re busy. Life is distracting. And sometimes you might forget about your friends, especially if they don’t take the initiative to contact you.
But remember, while you get to take a break from dealing with your friend’s illness, they don’t get a break from dealing with their illness.
If you rely on your own strength to support a friend, you may get tired of dealing with their issues. You may even forget them, as life gets in the way.
But if you pray for them, you will not only remember them, you will be able to draw on God’s wisdom and patience when you’ve run out of your own.
Not to mention, prayers do make a difference in people’s health and lives.
I fasted and prayed for Jane once a week. As years passed and nothing appeared to happen, I felt despair at times. But I was too frightened that she might die, so I continued to fast and pray.
After two to three years, however, I started to see results: slowly, Jane came out of her shell, responding to a few messages, and then, finally, agreeing to visit. In time, she found a job, returned to society, started reconnecting to old friends and making new friends.
Today, Jane is happy and healthy, moving on with her life.
As for me, when I was sick, I know that friends and even strangers’ prayers helped me improve significantly. For a long time I felt like I had been abandoned by God. Even though, theoretically, I knew He cared, I didn’t really believe that. I couldn’t read the Bible, I couldn’t pray for myself.
During that time, I know that someone, several someones, were praying for me. Those prayers jump-started a healing process that I know I would not have been able to reach without the help of those praying friends.
Having a mental illness is not easy. Neither is being the friend of someone with a mental illness.
My personal experiences have taught me: People suffering from a mental illness sorely need good, loving friends.
It is a lot of work to love and maintain your friendship with someone with a mental illness. But it is so worth it.
Be kind, be loving, and above all, be patient — with your friend, and with yourself.
Be the friend you’d want to have if you were in their shoes. Because you just might need such a friend yourself, one day.
Be persistent in doing good and loving, don’t be discouraged, draw on God when you’re tired of being the “good friend.”
You just might save a life.
*Names have been changed
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