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Dealing with Friends with Mental Illness

Sam (Friend) 27 Apr '17

Each month we feature a Common Advice Blog piece. The Common Ground Panel of professionals answer one of your questions on how to support a young person dealing with difficult situations in their lives or a young person experiencing a mental illness.


I was wondering how I could deal with my friends that are severely depressed/suicidal. For instance - what to say to them when they get in a mood, and also how to deal with it on my end?

My best friend is severely clinically depressed, and she talks to me about her problems and I try make her feel better but it really stresses me out and seems to be taking quite an emotional toll on me, and don't know how to handle it to be honest. And recently an old friend of mine who I haven't talked to in years rang me tonight very drunk by himself and crying, telling me about how his life is awful and he's depressed and he doesn’t know what to do etc. This sort of thing happens to me a lot, if I can get some advice on how to help them and how to handle myself so I’m not affected too much. Because it is very draining and I’m feeling my mental health start to suffer because of it.


Common Ground Panel Responses


Renee from Youthline says:

Big ups for recognising that it’s not just your mates that need help, it’s you too.

We get a lot of calls from concerned friends of peers that are depressed and suicidal, and so know that you are not alone in reaching out for support.

You are already supporting them just be being available to listen when they reach out. Know that you don’t have to have all the answers, as just listening and supporting in a non-judgemental way, helps big time.

It can seem like a huge responsibility when people are seeking your support for such difficult life issues, so it’s important to not get caught in the trap of thinking you are their only support. Encouraging people to reach out to get help from someone like a parent, older relative, teacher or counsellor is a way of strengthening their supports. It could also include building their awareness of  the many services that have been set up specifically to support youth (Youthline, thelowdown, What’s Up…), including a local GP, as severe depression as you have described requires professional support. Having a support person may help them make initial contact, so if you are up for it, you may want to offer going with them, or being there when they call.

Be aware that depression can cause people to say or do weird things, so take care not to take it personally, but also get space when you need it.

As you may have noticed with one of your mates, alcohol and drugs can be used to escape from reality or as a mood booster, however it can add to low mood, and actually make stuff worse, so you may want to gently check out other stuff they could do to feel better.

Another effective way of supporting low mood is to engage in physical activity, so it may be inviting them to go for a walk, playing some ball, or just whatever gets the air flowing and the heart pumping; even singing, which is a great way of shifting low mood.

And finally, if there is any talk of suicide, or even if you just have an inkling that they are heading that way - it’s okay to ask them if they are planning to end their life; and it’s okay to tell someone if they are. Even if they have asked you not to tell anyone, it is safer to have a friend angry at you, than a friend who is no longer alive.

Jono and Ana

Jono and Ana from Mental Health Foundation say:

It’s real hard to watch your mates go through difficult times. And you tend to feel like you wanna do everything that you can do to help them. But it’s real important that you are looking after yourself.  As much as you care for your mate, you need to make sure that you’re all good first. You might have heard people talking about self care #TreatYoSelf. Pretty much that means doing stuff that is good for you and makes you feel good about yourself.

Put aside time for yourself to do something you enjoy, where you’re not thinking about the situation with your friends. Maybe it’s exercising, watching a movie, hanging out with other friends – keep doing the things that make you feel good. It’s not selfish so don’t feel guilty – you aren’t responsible for your friend’s emotions and you can’t look after them 100% of the time. The best way to be a good supporter is to make sure you’re doing well yourself.

Those things can work in the short-term but you also need to do some stuff that will have longer-term effects. A good way to start that is to check in with yourself on the regular, ask yourself:

- ‘How am I feeling right now?’

- ‘What do I need to do feel solid again?’

- ‘How will I work through any of my big emotions?’

- ‘Who can I talk to for support?’

- ‘Am I getting the basics right? Eating well, drinking water, sleeping, exercising’

- ‘What can I do to feel good?’

As you answer your self-check questions, try and be as honest as possible with yourself. If you think things are getting out of your control, don’t be afraid to ask for some help yourself. Everyone needs support, even people that support others.

Each month we feature a Common Advice Blog piece. The Common Ground Panel of professionals answer one of your questions on how to support a young person dealing with difficult situations in their lives or a young person experiencing a mental illness. Got a question to ask our panel? You can ask us here.

*Please note, by commenting on this post, you agree for it to be used by Common Ground online and offline to help encourage a conversation about supporting young people.
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