We all want to love others well, but it’s no secret that supporting a friend living with mental illness can often be like swimming in murky waters. If you’ve never suffered first-hand from a mental illness, it can be tricky to know just what your friend might need at any given time. Even if you HAVE suffered from mental illness, every situation is different, and every person has their own individual experience with it.
You want to be there through the good and the bad times, but there’s no hand manual for being a good friend, much less one for navigating mental illness.
Hopefully, these 5 ways to support a friend living with mental illness will bring clarity to your next steps in loving them well.
1. Ask Questions
All too often, people are afraid to ask questions about someone’s experience with mental illness. Our culture has created a powerful stigma surrounding mental illness, and as a result, we shy away from asking questions. But if your friend showed up at your house for Friday night dinner with a cast on their foot and crutches under their arms, you wouldn’t think twice about asking them, “what happened?”
The same should be true for your friends suffering from mental illness. Don’t be afraid to ask them about their struggle. Ask them their triggers, their symptoms, their triumphs. It doesn’t have to be anything specific. Just ask good and thoughtful questions that will ultimately help you understand their journey. They’ll appreciate your intentionality, and the conversation opens the door for further support.
2. Don’t Make Them Your Project
When someone is having a difficult time, it’s totally natural for us as humans to want to “fix” it. We want to solve the puzzle, give and do whatever they need to get back to “normal” again and throw our whole selves into finding a solution for what they’re experiencing.
But Y’all, people do not need FIXING.
There’s a very BIG difference between supporting someone in a healthy manner, and taking responsibility for their well-being. We have a tendency to make other people’s problems our own problems. In doing so, we stop making it about them, and it suddenly becomes about us. Don’t make your friend your project. Ask them what they need, do what you can, but be pure in your intentions.
3. Patience is Key
This is a good practice in any friendship, but it’s particularly important when supporting someone with mental illness. You may or may not understand what they’re going through, and in all honesty, some of it might irritate you. Mental illness is irrational. It hits at any time, and it doesn’t make sense.
If your friend is suffering from mental illness, they already know these things. They live it on a daily basis, and I promise you, it’s infuriating to them. But if you become frustrated and lose your patience over something that’s completely out of their control, you’re not being the support they need. You’ve just become like the rest of the world.
4. Reassurance Goes a Long Way
It’s totally okay to not be okay. Life is hard, schedules are crazy, and the hustle and bustle of every day can be too much for anyone to handle. Sometimes all your friend needs is to be reassured that they are NOT crazy for feeling the way they do. Perhaps they need to hear from someone that what they’re experiencing is perfectly okay. Receiving a text with scripture—God’s promise to them in that moment—could literally change their entire day.
Mental illness is just that—it’s mental. It gets inside of your head and convinces you of irrational things. It stirs up fears and doubts and anxiety that you never even knew existed until you suddenly find yourself drowning in them for no explainable reason. That’s why reassurance of who they are, who God says they are, and that it’s OKAY, truly goes a long way.
5. Give Them Space
Yes, all of these things are about helping a friend, which to most of us means being there with them, and walking alongside them through it. But that doesn’t always translate to spending time together. Everyone needs space from time to time, and if your friend is dealing with mental illness, it’s possible that the best way you can support them is by creating that space for them.
Maybe that looks like taking something off of their plate and offering to do it for them instead. Perhaps that means picking up their kids from school and doing things with the kids all afternoon so that your friend can have the space she needs to fight her anxiety that day.
Supporting a friend living with mental illness doesn’t have to be confusing. It can be small acts of kindness that remind them they’re not alone. Intentionality goes a long way, and not only will it grow your friendship and strengthen your bond, it will also be a major support to them throughout their journey with mental illness.