Friendship is a tricky thing. Webster defines a friend as ‘a person who has a strong liking for and trust in another person’, which is a fair description. However, how many of you take the time to really reflect on what a friendship is? There are elements missing from Webster’s definition (individuals should add plug-ins to that definition so it’s more attune to their personal expectations. Ed). I’m not going to list these elements. Rather I’m going to ask you to reflect on this scenario:
Lisa is 21. She was diagnosed with depression when she was 12. She lives with her parents. Her father is abusive, prone to wild, angry outbursts and violence. She has a co-dependent relationship with her mother, who supports her husband’s erratic behaviour. Lisa has tried to commit suicide three times, the latest attempt was four weeks ago. Her first suicide attempt resulted in her hospitalisation. While in care she was raped by one of her carers. She now panics when her GP suggests support services to her.
(Lisa is a fictional case study and is an amalgamation of several different Lisa’s I have spoken too.)
How do you feel? Just take a minute to evaluate your emotions…
Now imagine you were Lisa’s friend. You have known her for years. You know she is depressed and know her history. Initially you felt sympathy for her situation, but are finding it difficult to find good reasons to contact her. How long will it take you to start avoiding her calls? When do honest pleas for help become the ranting of a drama queen?
We all have our own issues to worry about. It can be emotionally draining to support someone with Lisa’s issues. But what Lisa needs is literally a lifeline. Without friends with real sympathy she ends up calling the Samaritans at 2am hoping they can help keep her alive one more day.
Depressed people need to talk. They need to feel comfortable to open up. They don’t necessarily need you to do anything, all they need is someone who can listen attentively. Stunned silences and avoidance doesn’t help, nor does ‘just get over it’ or ‘it’ll get better’ or ‘snap out of it.’ This just leads to further isolation. And let’s be honest, when Lisa does stop calling, wouldn’t that be a relief?
If you want to be more supportive, here are some tips:
- Ask how the situation is making them feel. How often do people honestly want to know how you feel? Yet, this is a great friendship tool. It deepens rapport and allows your friend to feel valued. Try to be understanding, but don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. Use sympathy, never pity. Avoid ‘that must be awful!’ and try ‘I’d like to understand how you feel’. Simply trying to share how a person feels can be a huge weight lifted, since your friend now has someone who is trying to understand what their life is like.
- Ask what they would like to change. This is an exploratory question, so give them time to think and coax them gently. It is good for them to reflect and try to see a way through their problems. If this leads to more upset and frustration, ask them how they would like to feel. Feelings are sometimes easier to imagine than change scenarios.
- Ask how they think you can help. Be very careful how you ask this. You don’t want your friend to feel that they are a burden. You may find asking in the right way will also deepen your friendship, because this is where you can show that you care enough to stand by them. However, this is not an empty gesture. Be prepared to follow this through or you will be seen as untrustworthy.
- Remember you are an expert on your friendship. You should know when your friend is down and things that help pick them up. You will know what makes them smile and sometimes something simple like buying someone their favourite ice-cream can help your friend see the value of living.
Please feel free to contact me if you are looking for more ways to support friends who have mental help issues. Sometimes true friends need support too. Good friends make better lives, so ask yourself how you can be a better friend today. Find out more about how relationships are important to good mental health during Mental Health Awareness Week on the 16th – 22nd of May 2016 courtesy of the Mental Health Foundation