4 Things You Can Say to a Friend with a Mental Illness

We all have a friend with mental illness, but it is possible that you just don’t know because it’s not an easy subject to bring up. On top of that, you probably want to be sensitive to your friend’s conversational boundaries, so you steer clear of talking about anything related to mental health. Well, what I have learned from experience is that if you conduct yourself in an empathetic or compassionate way, it is likely that your struggling friends will be very open to a conversation with you about their trials. Here are some ways you can show your friend that you care and that they can trust you with their feelings and experiences:

Just come out and tell them that you’re there for them.
When I was in high school, my dad was at his worst with his drug use and I was at my worst with my depression. He was about to go to rehabilitation and I was starting to struggle in school and with my friends. I had informed a few teachers and friends that I really trusted. After about a week, one of my teachers, whom I had not said anything to, gave me one of the Superman toys from his desk and told me that he knew I was struggling. He said that while he had no clue what I was struggling with, he said that even Superman- the strongest man in the world- had a weakness and that it was okay for me to also struggle sometimes. I was so grateful for his consideration of what I was going through, but also grateful that he was giving me space to tell him as much or as little as I wanted. As a friend, you don’t have to save the friends in your life who are dealing with mental illness. But you can be a safe place for them to talk if you just let them know that you are available to listen. Another word of advice- it helps to be the friend that sometimes just listens. Which brings me to my next tip.

Be the friend that listens, not the friend that fixes.
This is a mistake I often make. Sometimes the only thing that your friend needs is someone to listen and validate his or her pain. When you tell your friend that you are there to help, it may also be best to mention that you are willing to just lend an ear when they need it. That you don’t have to say anything at all if they don’t want you to. This can be very comforting to someone who is struggling, because one of the hardest parts about asking for help is feeling like the other person whom they talk to will overreact. This is especially important if you friend is dealing with something like an eating disorder (which is technically a mental illness). If you try to tell them how to fix the problem, they are much more likely to back out and not talk to you again. Eating disorders are related to control issues and so being able to feel in control of their own lives is really important.

Validate their pain.
If you have a friend who opens up to you about their struggle, try not to overreact, but instead validate their pain. A GOOD example would be, “it seems like you have been going through a lot.” A BAD example might be, “Oh, it’s okay, I know how you feel, I get down sometimes, too.” Validating their pain, doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to overreact, either. When my anxiety gets bad, the last thing I want is for someone to get dramatic about it. I usually tell my husband what is bothering me, and he offers a hug or asks what he can do to help me. It’s the perfect response for my taste.

Offer Assistance Using these Phrases
“Is there anything I can do for you?” “What can I do to help?” “I really want to be here for you through this, what would be the most helpful?” These three questions give the person a lot of freedom to give you as much or as little to do for them without making you too overly involved. Avoid saying things like, “If you need me, just give me a call.” While these phrases show good intentions, it’s often really difficult for a person with a mental illness to go out of their way to ask for help. There have been many situations where a friend or an acquaintance said, “Well, just let me know how I can help.” And I never actually followed through with that request. It was just a lot for me to feel like I had to call them and start an awkward conversation. But when you specifically ask how you can help, you are doing them a service by breaking that ice first.

It can be a tricky situation to be helpful but not overbearing. It might take some trial and error, but at the end of the day, you can always tell them that you are trying your best to learn how to help because you love and support them. If they ask you to back off, do so. Doing what they ask within reason will help you gain their trust and maximize your help in the future. If you are feeling like you want them to trust you with their trials, you can also just start by being open about the things you have been through. This can also be a very important ice-breaker.

If you or a loved one is struggling with a substance use problem, Lifeline Connections is here to serve you. We are located in the Vancouver, WA area and vicinity. We offer an outstanding outpatient program where you can have a custom treatment plan and will be paired with a recovery coach. Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions or concerns: email admissions@lifelineconnections.org or call 360-397-8246 ext. 7580.

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