“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead.
Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow.
Just walk beside me and be my friend.”
I wonder what it means to you to be a friend? Does it mean the occasional coffee or dinner party? Is a friend the person you call at 3am? Or does it mean that you lay your life down for them?
I think if you had asked me, before I became ill, what being a friend meant, I would have said that being a friend would mean “being there” for someone and having fun with them. Over the past 10 years, however, my view of what it means to be a friend has changed dramatically. It would have done anyway, I’m sure: but mental illness has heightened it.
For me, friends have not only been people to hang out with, but at times, friends have been the ones to pull me kicking and screaming back from the edge of some unknowable abyss. They’ve called me by name when I’ve felt lost, and held onto hope for me when I couldn’t hold onto it for myself.
I lost friends, too. Both the passage of time and the difficulty of walking beside me when I could do nothing but face the ground has pulled once-close friendships apart. But the friends who have walked beside me through celebration and devastation have changed not only the way I view friendship, but the way I view life, myself and God.
When mental illness stripped me of my name and identity, friends have helped me to piece it back together again. Friendship is the greatest weapon we have against the stigma of mental illness, because there is no room for stigma if we are to call one another friends. As theologian John Swinton writes: “Committed friendship that reaches beyond culturally constructed barriers and false understands and seeks to ‘resurrect the person’ – who has become engulfed by their mental health problems – is a powerful form of relationships.”
And for my part, friendship has forced me to look beyond my own brain. For life does go on. Depression does not stop weddings being planned, babies being born and jobs changing. Friendship is often seen as something weak and soft, but the kind of friendship that Jesus talks about in the New Testament is anything but. It’s a friendship that calls us to lay down our lives and to reach outside of our own comfort zones. It’s a friendship that called Zaccheaus, the most outcast of men, down from a tree and into a new way of living, and a friendship that invites sinners to sit with the son of God.
So to mark Mental Health Awareness Week this year,we are launching a #BeAFriend campaign. All too often, we think that in order to support someone with a mental health problem, we need to be a professional or act like a therapist, but what we really need to do is be a friend: whether that be through sharing a Happy Hour frappaccino, asking if they need help with a food shop, inviting them to the pub after church on a Sunday, or offering to go to the doctors with them.
We don’t need to be a medical professional or therapist to help one another; we need to be a friend and we need to let them be our friend, too.
To get involved with the ThinkTwice #BeAFriend campaign, Facebook or tweet your ideas, with a picture of you doing them if you want, using the hashtag to @ThinkTwiceInfo or ThinkTwiceInsta if you prefer Instagram.
Rachael Newham, 23/05/2016