How to Help Other People Help You

I'm impressed with all the work that's been done in recent years to overcome the stigma attached to mental illness, and to get people talking about their experiences. I think that's an important thing to do. Now that we've been encouraged to tell our friends and family what's going on, I wonder how those conversations are going, and if any of them are similar to the ones I've had.

I remember getting the courage to tell a few select friends that I wasn't doing so well. I chose three of the people who I was closest to, and knew I could trust, and I explained what was going on in my head, and the fact that I needed some support right now. The trouble was, nobody had sat down with these people and trained them in how to respond to that kind of admission. While we'd been taking in the message that we needed to start a conversation, no one had taught us how to continue it.

The responses ranged from not taking me very seriously to feeling completely overwhelmed and unable to help. The end result was the same in all three cases: none of them ever raised the subject again, or asked how I was doing in regards to what I'd shared. That's a difficult thing to experience: it leaves you vulnerable to all kinds of feelings of disappointment, rejection, or the fear that you're just too much trouble for people to bother with you anymore. It can harm precious friendships, and we need to fight for them in the wake of this kind of knock.

When I'd stopped feeling sorry for myself, I realised it was nobody's fault that my friends did not know how to react perfectly, and that I could do something to help them. I'm not suggesting that friends of someone with mental health problems have it worse than the sufferer, but it is definitely hard for them too, especially if they don't understand what is happening to their friend. They didn't know how to respond to me when I looked sad, and they didn't know where to start finding out what they needed to know. And that's completely understandable. I, on the other hand, knew plenty of websites and books that could help, and I already had an interest in the subject of mental health. So I decided I would do the legwork for them. I read lots of articles, talked with people who studied or practised anything relating to counselling or psychology, and signed up to a course that had modules in caring for people with issues like depression, self harm, stress and eating disorders.

Now I'm equipped to answer the question “what can I do to help?” when it comes. Because I'm someone who doesn't always like asking for help (it seems like such an imposition!) I ended up drawing up a list with the catchy title “what I would do if I was trying to help someone else feeling like this” which really helped one person I know who likes clear instructions (and lists). I'm also now better able to explain the processes in my head and the things that trigger them in a way that doesn't scare people.

It feels a bit weird that, when I tell a close friend that I'm struggling, I effectively start supporting them in their aim to support me. I've ended up talking through with people the feelings of powerlessness they feel in the face of another person's mental illnesses. I figure that people who are well supported are better able to support others, so I'm doing myself a favour in the long run.

This whole process has been strange, but I think that until “how to support a friend who's struggling with a mental health issue” becomes part of the national curriculum, it's the best way I can help my friends help others, and hopefully start to create a community that is capable of offering care to anyone who needs it. 
Claire Wong, 30/06/2014
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