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How to be a good friend to someone who is struggling with their mental health

Watching one of the people you love the most struggle mentally can be one of the most heart-breaking feelings in the world. It can overwhelm you with guilt, a sense that you are not doing enough, or a feeling of helplessness. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

As someone who has suffered with trauma, which consequently lead to mental health problems, I thought this would be easy. Having been in the position of that person who needs a friend, it wasn’t something I worried about.

But I was wrong.

When one of my friends lost her brother suddenly last year, I was overwhelmed with all of these feelings. Heartbreak, helplessness and guilt. I didn’t know what to say, or do, to help take some of the pain away.

The funny thing about struggling with your mental health, losing someone, or going through some kind of trauma is that it doesn’t always gravitate people towards you. TV and movies would have you think that every person in your life would suddenly drop everything to come to your aid, but that’s not the reality. In a lot of cases, people do the opposite – they pull away. They look at you in a different way, they don’t know what to do or say, so they don’t do anything. But something I’ve learnt is that doing something kind, reaching out in some way, is better than doing nothing. Even if that person is not ready to talk, knowing that when they are ready, they can talk to you is invaluable.

The seemingly sad reality is that if you are struggling, you might lose some people you thought were important in your life along the way. But that’s not something to feel sad about. Not everyone is in a place in their life where they can deal with such situations, and that is no loss. The beautiful thing about it is that you realise the people who truly are there for you, the people who are prepared to step up when you need them. The people who don’t look at you differently because you take antidepressants, or see you as ‘the boy whose Mum died’ or ‘the girl who had a troubled childhood.’ They still see you as the warm, kind person who makes them laugh, even if you are not in a position to do that right now.

The most important thing you can do for a friend who is struggling is to reach out, and keep an eye on them. Look out for that friend who normally enjoys preparing the best outfit every day, doing their hair and make-up immaculately, and who now appears to have no interest in doing so. Look out for that friend who normally never misses their gym class, their hockey social, their 9am lecture, and now rarely turns up to anything. Look out for your friend who seems to be in their room all the time, not answering their phone, or going out at all all the time uncharacteristically. Maybe it is something innocent, or just a phase, but you never know unless you ask.

As much as it is a cliché: you never know what someone is going through.

To conclude, I surveyed a group of people about something their friend did for them when they were struggling, that made a difference. The results were as follows:

  • “I was really overwhelmed because my health hadn’t been great, and I hadn’t managed to get out the house that day. My boyfriend knew I needed PJs, so he took me to Primark and bought me new fluffy pyjamas and paid for my dinner.”

  • “They took me on a day trip to St Andrews.”

  • “Lasagne, lots of lasagne.”

  • “My flatmate used to do tea rounds for everyone in the flat.”

  • “in 1st year I was very overwhelmed with work and uni and my flatmate wrote a card for me and slide it under my door when I was at work – I genuinely sat down and bawled my eyes out when I saw it.”

  • “Showing me they were there for me.”

  • “Came through to my room to have a chat when I was isolating myself.”

  • “Sent me flowers.”

  • “Bought me a box of cakes and brownies from my favourite café.”

  • “They slept with their phone next to them on full volume in case I felt bad in the night and wanted to talk.”

  • “Made me a cup of tea without asking.”

  • “A big hug.”

  • “Took me out for food and a chat.”

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