Supporting a friend with a mental health illness

Continuing our blog series on experiences of anxiety for Mental Health Week, we have a personal account from an anonymous member of the Picker team on becoming an ally in understanding and responding to a loved one’s mental health illness and journey…

A few years back, I noticed a close friend was becoming withdrawn, lacking their usual cheeriness to the extent that I wondered if something was happening. I decided to check in with them as I knew they were having a difficult time at work. However, I had no clue about the extent of these difficulties as my friend avoided talking about it, despite my asking more than once. When prodded, they were dismissive, gave fairly non-committal answers, and would quickly change the subject. It took a few persevering attempts to get them to fully open up and admit that they been struggling and had been signed off work with stress. Initially, I was shocked that hadn’t spotted just how much they had been struggling. I then had to rein myself in. This wasn’t about me. Someone I cared about was experiencing a serious struggle and what mattered was supporting them through it

What could I do to help?

We talked about what was happening at work and what the doctor suggested. Through this, I realised how hard it was for my friend to tell me. They would describe me as supportive and non-judgemental, but still, opening up had been a difficult journey. This made me think; current statistics say 1 in 6 people in the last week experienced a common mental health problem and approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year . With this in mind, I had the scary thought that the people in my life; family, friends, and colleagues, could be experiencing similar challenges and feelings, and feel unable to reach out. What can I do to make reaching out easier for them and how can I support them?

With my friend, I consciously checked in on them more often, reminding them that I was there for them before and would be again anytime, anywhere in a heartbeat, I especially checked in when I knew they had meetings with work, appointments with their doctor, and when they started seeing a counsellor. I asked them what they needed from me and how they would like me to support them. I was aware that what they thought they needed might change and so we regularly chatted about if what I was doing was helpful, did they need more of it, less of it, was there something I wasn’t doing. I always made sure to be the one who started these conversations, as I knew it can be hard enough to ask for what you need from those around you without the added anxiety or the challenges of a mental health illness.

I also made sure to plan fun things to do with my friend. Not only did it give them things to look forward to, but it also served to remind them that they could still have fun and that they are still the same person that was there before the mental health diagnosis. I wanted them to see that it didn’t change how I saw them, that my friend was still there, and that I wanted to spend time with them. I needed them to see that they mattered to me and would help them through this the same way I would if they had broken a leg. I wanted them to know that it was ok.

Exercising mindfulness

This experience was a lightbulb moment for me. I wanted to take the situation and learn from it by being more mindful of what others might be going through. I check in with people and try to notice any changes in behaviour and am especially mindful if someone is always upbeat, happy, and positive as this can mask how someone is really feeling. I try to be understanding and be someone people can talk to by respecting what people tell me and keeping their confidence. As with any illness or diagnosis, this does not define who the person is and what they are capable of, and this is especially important to remember when it comes to one’s mental health.

Together, we can be more understanding of those around us and make it ok for people to talk about the mental health challenges they may face.

For more information on the topics discussed in this blog, please check out:

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