In New Zealand, mental illness affects at least one in six adults at some point in their life. This means most of us have encountered people in our lives who have been suffering from mental illness. 40 years ago, there was not as much awareness around mental health as there is today, and it was not talked about. People suffering from illnesses such as schizophrenia were seen as “crazy” or “possessed”, whereas those struggling with addictions were just “drunks”.
I was 15 when one of my friends started displaying symptoms of eating disorder and depression. It was difficult for us, as her friends, to know what to do. My default reaction was to overcrowd her, asking question after question. I thought it would help if I showed her interest about how she felt in this way. I learned over time this was not the best way to do it and it was probably more unhelpful than it was good. Other friends just refused to talk about the problem or acknowledge something was going on. They would pretend that life was just going on as normal, which in itself wasn’t helpful either.
When I went to university, I met a girl who turned out to be one of the most incredible people in my life. She’s without a doubt the smartest, kindest and selfless person I know. Halfway through our first year she began to struggle with something which she kept mostly to herself. I knew that something was wrong, and it took all my self-restraint not to confront her on what it was. Throughout the course of that year she began to open up about what was going on and the ways in which I could help.
She later said that she had really appreciated I had not push her to talk. In the end it was my openness about my own mental health struggles that had encouraged her to talk about hers. So, in saying all of this, here are some of the tips that I learnt while helping my friends deal with mental illnesses:
Don’t push someone to talk about topics they are uncomfortable with
If they are ready to talk, they will. In saying this, if you are worried that a friend or a family member is not safe, then there are several mental health lines (1737 number, for example) that you could call to talk about what to do, or speak to another trusted person you know.
2. Be a good listener
Honestly, sometimes the best way to help is to just listen to what they have to say.
3. Talk to your loved one about normal life, and do not only focus on what is going on
4. Take care of yourself
If you’re upset about what is going on with your loved one, then talk about it with someone else. This could either be another trusted friend, counsellor or somebody from mental health call or text services. It is important that you take care of yourself so you can be there for your friend or family member.
It is very hard to see your friends struggling and not have the ability to do anything about it but remember: by just being there, listening and maintaining a relationship with your loved one, that is already enough.
- Charlotte L