Helping a Friend With A Mental Health Disorder

If you look at any statistics anywhere, they will tell you the chances of you knowing someone and having a friendly relationship with someone experiencing a mental disorder is high. You will probably know someone quite well and they will probably have some form of mental illness, whether it be depression, anxiety, a form of anxiety such as social anxiety, a severe phobia, or other things, including PTSD. More than 1 in 10 will have a disabling anxiety disorder at some point in their life; 13% of adults have a phobia; anxiety and depression form the most common types of disorder; women are around twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder; 15 million people worldwide deal with social anxiety; 77% of people can’t name over 3 of the many types of anxiety disorders.

However, what you may not know is how to deal with this, how to talk about it with them and if you need to give them guidance, and how. It may be very simple to see that they are struggling with a disorder such as anxiety as they are constantly worried or nervous, or maybe they are already diagnosed with a disorder, which means giving them the help they need might be easier than if they were in denial of having any type of mental health disorder. It also might be difficult to understand what they’re going through if you don’t talk to them, as often it is hard to open up and tell the truth about things for fear of controversy or disbelief on the other side. This guide is meant to be for most disorders but as my own experience is mainly with anxiety, it may be slightly for better suited to those with anxiety or one of its forms. Having said that, most mental health disorders could be helped with a few supportive friends, so the basics should still be effective.

Understanding

The first thing to do is properly understand. Try to get a feel for when they might be most anxious/depressed, what affects them most, if they have any triggers, when it started and what they suffer with most. Before you understand you can’t really help them because it’s like coaching a gymnast with no knowledge or interest in the sport; it won’t happen and will feel awkward and forced. You can do this by either talking to them (see below) or doing some research about the disorder and what they might be going through.

Talking

It is so important to tell that person that you’re there for them and they’re free to talk to you about things, as it will definitely strengthen the bond you share and also the trust they have in you. There are several ways to do this, whether you want to say it over text and make sure you say what you want without any difficulty or face to face. I would advise having a quick word face to face as then the message is properly converted and it seems a little genuine, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with checking up on them online if it seems weird face to face; it’s the thought and the effort that you’re putting in that counts!

Support

Support is probably the best thing you can offer to anyone suffering with a mental health disorder. No matter what age, gender, personality or relative, it is so useful just giving them that support and letting them know you’re there. Again, you can give support in a few ways, the most obvious being telling them that and asking them if they ever need anything or if they need to talk to you about anything (the link between talking to them and giving support is definitely strong) to calling them on a regular basis or even maintaining a friendly text conversation to check up on them. However, remember that their mental health is not your responsibility so don’t become too wrapped up in it; as a friend, it is your job to give a bit of support and see if you can help.

Face to Face

If they’re quite a close friend, the chances are you might be meeting up out of school or work and spending time together in a different atmosphere. If you know they have certain triggers (of course, depending on what disorder they may suffer with) then you can give support and immense help with letting them know they don’t have to do anything that might be terrifying to them. Again, it is important to not cross the line between caring and over the top, so make sure they’re comfortable but don’t do everything for them as that isn’t how friendship works. I love when I can talk to people and simply mention something that might be very intimidating, and as my friends already know and are completely lovely, they’ll support me and let me know it’s okay. I would definitely recommend just speaking up and saying that you find it difficult to order or that going to the cinema is scary and if they’re a true friend, they’ll help and either support you at the time or ask if you want to do something else. There may also be slight changes you can make to improve the mood or make them feel less anxious, so quickly check with them if you could do anything differently.

Anxiety

Helping someone with anxiety can be done in many ways; depending on the person, your relationship and the type of anxiety they suffer with. Below are some tips and starting points on how to understand, talk and help those with an anxiety disorder:

  • Be there! Offer to talk or phone them so they can explain.
  • If they don’t want to talk, don’t force it. This makes the relationship between the two of you a little uncomfortable and pressuring them to explain how they feel will definitely create tension, even if you’re trying to help.

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) – Specific ways you can help this is by offering to order or pay at restaurants or opting for a quieter cafe rather than a crowded Costa. Small alterations such as that will make them a lot more comfortable and you’ll probably get on better as they won’t be feeling anxious. If you’re going somewhere you know is anxiety-inducing, taking things such as headphones so you can relax and listen to music could make a huge difference. Everyone is different and has different coping methods though, so check with them before and ask how you can help! Finally, if they cancel due to anxiety, the worst thing you can do is to pressure them into coming. Yes, it may be annoying, but even changing your plans a fraction can make them much less scary and that means you can both enjoy your time together. Instead of saying ‘Come on, I won’t be your friend if you don’t come’ you can simply respond ‘That’s a shame, I really was looking forward to seeing you. Can we do something different?’.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) –

Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) – This often means that being apart from you or another person will make them increasingly anxious. I suffer from Separation Anxiety and I think the worst thing about it is it can spoil special days with your friends as you can’t stop thinking about what could happen. Yes, it will mean your friend may be against going to yours or sleeping over, or won’t want to go out for the entire day. However, there are ways to comfort them if they’re unsure about something; for example, staying closer to home, meeting at theirs, or arranging certain plans.

Depression

Although I may not have much experience of dealing with those with depression and helping them, there are certain ways of supporting and helping a friend if they’re struggling. Many tips are simple yet very effective and you don’t have to be their BFF to try them, so incorporate a few into your daily routine and let them know you’re there for them.

  • Write a short note or letter and put it in their bag, locker or on their desk – this works for anyone and is a great pick me up.
  • Talk to them at break, offer to sit with them in a lesson or phone them! You can arrange things such as a coffee date or simply a short walk – any small distraction will be very welcome and should allow you to bond. It’s also good for your mental health as getting out and meeting others is so important!
  • Give them something to look forward to. You can do this by scheduling a weekly activity such as a weekly lunch date or a weekly Facetime so you can catch up. People who suffer from depression will definitely benefit from having something nice in the calendar and it’s also fun for you, thus being an incentive to finish the week. Another idea is to have a monthly outing such as visiting a theme park or going shopping, which may require more money but a whole day out is a great way to cheer them up, even if only momentarily.

Remember that no matter how much you care about them, it isn’t your job to take care of them completely and check up on them constantly. It’s great to have supportive friends and you should never take them for granted, but suffocating them is never a good idea and it can have a negative impact on your own mental health. So keep an eye out and by all means schedule in the phone calls and be there for them but make sure you don’t focus on them rather than you. It’s important to distance yourself sometimes and take time for yourself too, so don’t forget to schedule that in!

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