My friend has a mental illness, how do I help?

Knowing how to help a friend is almost as important as knowing how to help yourself

At one point or another, there’s a great chance that you will know somebody struggling with a mental illness. Knowing how to help a friend is almost as important as knowing how to help yourself. It can make all the difference. 

I suffered from anorexia nervosa for four years. For those of you who don’t know, anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by restricting diet and excessive exercise. 

It began when I was fourteen and had just started high school. A combination of anxiety about this transition and insecurity about being far less than my image of perfect created the perfect storm. I began restricting my eating and working out excessively. 

I completed my treatment prior to coming to university in the fall and since then, I’ve been able to stay healthy with the support of friends and family. Through all the guidance I’ve received from people involved in my journey to recovery, I was able to discover what strategies were truly helpful to me. 

The tips I’ll share are things that worked for me, but everybody is different. Everyone’s struggle is individual so make sure you adapt to the friend that you’re helping. 

It can be difficult to know when to approach speaking with a friend if you’re concerned about their mental health, let alone how. For me, having people who were willing to help me on my own terms was invaluable, being there when I wanted to talk as opposed to forcing me to share. 

I had many friends who were able to help me cope with it and wanted to be there, but I also lost many friends who weren’t willing to be involved with me anymore. Most of this happened when I was in the ninth grade, and no one had yet discussed mental health with us at length. Many of my friends at that time weren’t sure what was going on and thought I was starving myself for attention. 

That year, I lost many friends and as a result, I spiralled further into my anorexia. However, I had a few friends who, to this day, stuck by me and helped me through 

my struggle. But it wasn’t easy for a lot of people to be there for me. I was quite private about my disorder and didn’t want to feel like a burden to others by constantly talking about it. 

However, they were aware it existed and were always there if I decided I wanted to talk about it. They were also a crucial part of my happiness and my recovery.

My friends allowed me to talk out my feelings when I needed to, but also let me know that no matter what, they were there. 

Forcing any friend, or badgering them to talk about their struggles with you, isn’t a helpful way to behave. What was more meaningful to me was when friends would routinely ask if I’m okay, keeping the lines of communication open. I had friends ask me if there was anything they could do to help me and normally, there wasn’t. Simply being there was helpful, because recognizing that people loved me and were there for me gave me the strength to recover. 

Keeping yourself educated on different mental illnesses is important, both in helping a friend and helping yourself. Many of my friends were uneducated about eating disorders and would therefore try and force me to “just eat,” thinking that was the solution to all my problems. 

Not only was this unhelpful, it made me more agitated and anxious about eating because there was so much pressure to do it. In turn, they’d become irritated with me, as they didn’t understand why I was unable to do something that came so naturally to them. 

Being educated on different mental illnesses will help you understand what your friend is dealing with, and the best way to approach it.

Helping your friend find happiness in little things can be extremely helpful. While I was suffering, I felt a little lost, not wanting to go out to certain places anymore. 

My friends would take me to coffee shops or to the mall, where I was able to distract myself for a little bit and have fun. Sometimes I didn’t want to talk about how shopping for clothes or eating in a restaurant was hard for me, I just wanted to have fun with my friends.  

Most importantly, remember that someone isn’t their disorder. 

I was always very insecure about people looking at me and seeing anorexia instead of myself, Victoria. I still went to parties and to movies like everybody else. I still did my homework and turned in assignments and celebrated holidays with my family. 

Some people would tip toe around their words with me and I didn’t like that. I hated feeling like I was different. I encourage people to act as you always would, because your friend is the same person, they just have this extra mountain to climb. 

Remember, above all these tips, help someone who may be struggling with a mental illness find the resources they need. Referring them to a mental health professional can be a difficult conversation to have, but it may be essential. Making sure they are aware of the resources available to them is key to their recovery.

With mental health being such an important fixture in our lives, we must know how to handle it when we, or someone close to us, is mentally unwell. 

Friends are so important to our mental health and having them by your side can make a huge difference.

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