Mental Health Awareness Month: supporting your friends

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As many of you may know, May has been used across the world as Mental Health Awareness Month since 1949, with Mental Health Week occurring in England this year from the 23rd-30th May. Since the beginning of Mental Health Month, much of the media coverage has focused on the stigma surrounding mental health, or how best to seek help for mental health illnesses. Both of these areas of mental health are extremely important and deserve as much awareness as possible, which has been achieved as a fantastic consequence of Mental Health Awareness Week. However, there is one area of mental health that is covered much less by the media: how to support someone you know and love whilst they battle with mental illness.

I am lucky enough to have two amazing best friends, one of whom I have known for over eight years, and one of whom I have known since coming to university. And, like many others, they have both experienced mental health illnesses at some stage in their lives. I have often felt at a loss over how to help them, having had no experience of mental health illness of my own, and so decided to undertake some research into how you can best support someone who is suffering from these illnesses in the hope that, as a result, more people have the confidence to reach out and help anyone they know and love who they believe to be suffering with mental illness. From researching this advice, I now feel like I can be more supportive of my friends when they need me most, which is, without a doubt, the most important thing that anyone can do.

So, firstly: take time to talk to them, and listen to what they say. After having talked about this with my friend, she said that the most comforting thing for her is to know that someone is there for her to talk to whenever she is feeling down. Whether that is a phone call, a coffee break or an evening together, knowing that someone is there to listen to them, and there to talk to without judging how they feel, is one of the most important ways of supporting someone struggling with mental illness such as depression or anxiety. Talking, and listening, is a way in which you can let your loved ones know that you are there for them, and gives them the opportunity to talk about anything they’re worried about, without having to face the possibly daunting prospect of bringing the subject up themselves. Discussing how they’re feeling also helps you be better informed about their experiences and, should another depressive episode occur, will allow you to be more supportive of how they’re feeling in the best way you can and, hopefully, help them feel more comfortable talking to you about it again.

However, don’t try and force the issue. Mental health illnesses can make people reluctant to be forthcoming with emotions, feelings and worries, often due to the stigma surrounding these issues that make people embarrassed or fearful to speak out, so instead be relaxed, engaged and open; knowing that you are there to talk about the latest GoT episode or Nigel Farage’s latest tie choice will hopefully encourage your friends and loved ones to feel more relaxed and trusting of you, and will lead to discussion of any worries in their own time.

Secondly: exam time is a stressful time for any university student, but can be even more problematic for those suffering from illnesses such as depression and anxiety. So, make sure that your loved ones and friends have someone to take breaks with out of the stressful revision/exam routine. Maintaining contact with the world outside of Billy B’s four walls is important for anyone, but especially so to reduce the risk of a depressive episode or anxiety attack brought on by stress. So, making time for revision breaks such as going out for coffee, going for a walk, or even just visiting each other in YUM, will help any friends suffering from mental health illnesses around a peak stressful period.

Thirdly: be patient. Many people suffering from mental illness can be frustrated with themselves due to a belief often that it is their own fault that they feel this way, as opposed to a chemical imbalance in the brain that occurs through no fault of their own, and may feel misunderstood or alone. You need to show anyone suffering from mental health illness that they are not alone, that you are there to help them through it all, and that you will not be critical of their emotions. In being patient, you will often learn to understand their behaviour more and, in some cases, be able to identify what may trigger a particularly bad episode, and thus encourage them to take any action needed to prevent it getting worse.

Finally: remember that you are not a medical professional. One of the worst feelings in the world is the feeling of helplessness, which many people suffering from mental health illness feel on a daily basis. However, this can also be felt by people trying to be supportive of loved ones, and not knowing how best to support someone can make you feel like the worst friend in the world. But mental health issues are illnesses as their base and only qualified professionals can deal with these illnesses in the best way possible. Encourage your loved ones to speak out and seek help, and support them as much as possible through the process of doing so. But most importantly, be there for them whenever they need you, and let them know that you are there to help them every step of the way.

If you believe that someone you know is suffering from a mental health illness, there are numerous avenues of support:

Mind infoline: 0300 123 3393 or text 86463

Visit your local GP

Rethink Mental Illness: 0300 5000 927

Samaritans: 08457 90 90 90 or email at jo@samaritans.org.

DU Nightline: 0191 334 6444

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