- Try not to compare their situation to any experience of your own, unless you want to emphasise that recovery and brighter times are possible. There seems to be this thwarted competitiveness in society these days, even between the closest of friends: there’s an unspoken competition over who has the most problems or the most serious issue. (I definitely experienced this throughout my illness: I constantly heard fellow young women stressing over how little they had eaten or how many calories they had burnt at the gym, as if hunger and overexercise are virtues deserving accolades.) Although you may have the best of intentions, comparing their struggle with clinical depression to that day your dog died and you cried so much your face practically doubled in size will do nothing but trivialise their illness and unwittingly imply they are merely overreacting.
- Don’t pretend to understand. Even if you have suffered through mental illness yourself, it’s impossible to know exactly how your loved one is feeling because everyone experiences things in a way unique to them. Two people both struggling with severe anxiety, for example, may demonstrate similar symptoms but are likely to have significantly different triggers and causes; to one, riding the tube may lead to little or no concern, whereas to the other it may feel like the equivalent of stepping into a war zone. The bottom line is that you do not have to fully understand the mental illness in order to support a sufferer. Being compassionate, loving and listening to their struggles is more than enough.
- Do take care of yourself. The saying ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ is so, so true: you simply cannot support a loved one through a difficult period if you are not looking after yourself. Do not assume entire responsibility for their illness. If they have have chosen to confide in you and only you, then first off you are clearly an incredibly valued and trusted person in their life and you should be proud of yourself. But mental illnesses are unbelievably complicated and often need the input of a professional; perhaps your friend approached you first because they were subconsciously searching for validation of their struggles, and reassurance that they are not being melodramatic. Provide this reassurance, no matter what the situation, and gently but firmly insist they seek professional help. Of course you can continue to be a pillar of support but remember that your own health and wellbeing must remain a priority.
- Do remember that they are still the person you love, not merely their illness. Even though their personality may have become a little bit squashed since they’ve been unwell and their struggles have taken up dominance in their mind, your friend is still your friend. They are still the person you grew up with or shared a flat with or graduated with or cried over your first born baby with. Don’t forget this, and don’t let them forget this either. People often describe mental illnesses as niggling voices that take up residence in their brain and do not shut up, but giving these voices too much headspace can fuel the illness. Remind your loved one who they are aside from these struggles and try to see them as the beautiful person they have always been.
At the end of the day, simply listen, love unconditionally and never give up on someone: when I becomes we, illness becomes wellness.