How to be a good friend to someone battling mental illness

How to be a good friend to someone battling mental illness
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These days there is an alarming increase in the number of people suffering from mental health issues. Almost everyone knows someone or the other who is dealing with it. While this is difficult for the person concerned, it is not easy for his or her near and dear ones as well.

It is important to realize that when your friend is going through mental illness, the symptoms will differ greatly depending on the type of illness she or he is suffering from. Some may have hallucinations where the experiences that they go through is different from reality. Others may go through bouts of extreme loneliness, loss of self-confidence and an urge to indulge in self-harm.

As a friend, we understand that none of this is easy for you to deal with. However at the same time, we must also realize that most mental illnesses are 100% curable and having a shoulder to cry on makes a lot of difference. You being there for your friend will pave the way for a smoother and faster recovery for him or her.

A lot of people want to support their friends suffering from mental illness but they do not know where to begin. Today, on the occasion of Friendship Day, we bring to you some simple tips that will make life easier for you and your friends.

1. Give them your undivided attention
Realize that company, or the lack of it, has a great impact on a person’s mental health. People suffering from mental illness have low self-worth. In such a situation, if you are distracted when talking to them, it will only make matters worse. We understand that you are busy with your life, but make an effort to set aside some time off your schedule and talk to them.

Bring out open-ended questions that would encourage them to speak. Make sure that your voice is not too loud, your tone is normal and your pace is not too fast. Take special care to ensure that you are not engrossed in your phone while talking to them.

2. Let them share what they want to
Understand that it takes a lot for a person with mental illness to come out of the closest and talk about his or her fears. Let them do so at their own pace. At times you may feel that they are repeating details, or that they are not telling you enough. It is important to be patient. Chances are that you are the first person they are confessing to and if you are not mature about it they will again bottle things up. This will only make things worse for them.

3. Do not try to be a counsellor
When your friend with mental illness talks to you, do not put yourself in the shoes of a counsellor (unless you are professionally qualified to do so). Refrain from making assumptions or jumping into conclusions. Let them talk it out and offer your genuine opinions.

Most cases of mental health illness arise from extreme loneliness and self-doubt. Having someone to talk to eases it out.

If you feel that you are not able to handle it or that they need a counsellor, take them to one. Please note that you must take them to the counsellor and not send them to one. Going to a psychiatrist or counsellor all by oneself (especially if it is for the first time) is a scary feeling altogether. Knowing that they have someone with them can make all the difference.

4. Be clear about what you talk
While having a conversation, at least one of you must have a clear head. Take it upon yourself to ensure that you talk about one topic at a time. Look for common ground and share your feelings openly. This will help them cut down on defensiveness.

You must stay aware throughout the conversation so that you can note if your friend is becoming upset or confused at any point. If that happens, act immediately and divert the topic to something more comfortable. Understand that people suffering from mental illness often get upset over the pettiest of things. You steering the conversation will help them greatly.

While it is important to be a good listener to such a friend, knowing when to provide a suitable distraction is just as important.

5. Physical contact is not necessary
A lot of people have the misconception that one has to meet up if they want to have a conversation with someone braving mental illness. While a face to face conversation is a good idea, it is not an absolute must.  A video call, phone call or chatting over WhatsApp will work just as fine.

What is important is that you are a good listener and that you make an effort to communicate. Avoid making false promises. If you cannot make it to the video call, do not promise the same. People with mental illness often draw meaning from everyday events and this type of carelessness on your part will only make things worse for them.
By following the above suggested tips, you will be able to provide a shoulder to your friend battling mental illness. Such people often break down in tears for no apparent reason. This may lead you to feel helpless. At such times, keep calm and let them cry it out. Reinforce to them who they are and what they mean to you. If you feel that things are going out of hand and you suspect that your friend is indulging in self-harm or is suicidal, do not hesitate to seek immediate help.

The toll-free number for the National Suicide Prevention Helpline is 1800-273-8255 and you may reach out to them 24X7.

If you have read this far, know that your friend is lucky to have someone like you who is making an effort to stay with them at a time of crisis. If only the world had more people like you, mental health illness would be a thing of the past.

Here’s thanking you for being a gem of a friend, and wishing you a very Happy Friendship Day!