Fostering Friendships with Those Living with Mental Illness

You have just met a person who suffers from mental illness. You consider becoming friends with this person. But, first, before you begin to foster this new relationship let me give you some guidelines and tips so you can thoroughly think this new development over in your head. Mentally ill persons are delicate and vulnerable; they need stable and reliable relationships in their lives to encourage good mental health. Do not befriend a person with mental health issues if you do not intend to follow through with the relationship. If you are a person who suffers “cold feet-tite-iss” when a relationship gets too claustrophobic or “real” then perhaps you should read on.

Do not view the person as a “mission field”. If you would not be friends with this person naturally, because you truly feel a kinship with him/her, then perhaps you should think twice. Ask yourself why I am forging a relationship with this person? What do I want out of it? Am I only continuing contact with him/her because I feel I can fix them? If you answered yes to the last question, wrong answer, by the way. Do not befriend this person because of a sense of civic duty. You unnecessarily “martyr” yourself and the mentally ill person as well. You will find yourself enduring a sense of turmoil from spending your precious time with someone you don’t particularly feel benevolent towards and he/she will have to put up with your suffering while you do it.

I say this because the mentally ill person in question is not completely oblivious (they are intelligent and sensitive) and he/she will pick up on your “I really do not want to be here” vibe. Mentally ill people desperately need friendships in their hollow and lonely lives. They do not need a continuous reminder of why they need “special friends”, like Saint Lisa, who is willing to lend her ear to an “undesirable” once in a while just to put another notch in her halo. Sound harsh? I am in support of mentally ill people being embraced by their communities, shown acceptance, understanding and a sense of worth. I am not in support of mentally ill people being set apart and treated as “special persons” who only gain attention from the community they live in because they are seen as issues rather than the valued citizens they truly are.

Do you want to know the effects a “special friendship” has on a mentally ailing person? Once this person realizes the friendship is based on some misguided civic duty and not on real mutual feelings of sentimentality, the reality can be a bitter and shaming experience. And, it can be the impetus to send that person into a tailspin of disappointment.

So, if you truly like this person, you think he/she is unique and could be a valid worthwhile friend, then by all means go for it. Just leave the “special friendships” to the professionals, they are the experts in the areas like therapy and mental health. They know what to do. Sometimes all a mental ailing person needs is a real friend. Someone to just be there. This way there are no expectations or pressure for both parties involved.

Do not concentrate on making his/her existence better; do not try to fix them.
Do not refuse or withhold friendship if he/she doesn’t “shape up” or conform to your concept of how he/she should lead his/her life.  Remember he/she has full rights as a citizen of the country he/she lives in. If he/she is of legal age, they are adults, and should be allowed to make decisions or live the way he/she sees fit even if you don’t agree. Especially, if they are able to function on a day-to-day basis with stable mental health.

See the person as a human being first, a mentally ailing person second.
Never say: “Are you sure you should do that seeing as you are bipolar, and you are prone to mental illness?” Don’t cripple with your words by giving him/her a sense that he/she is childlike and he/she must to be told what he/she cannot be or do. Empower and encourage, allow him/her to experience life and discover his/her limitations him/herself. You may be amazed at what that person can achieve if allowed the chance to try. What would your quality of life be like if everyone always told you you shouldn’t live your life to its full potential simply because they didn’t have faith in you as a person. It would feel debilitating, wouldn’t it?

If he/she has a dream, no matter how incredulous it may seem, allow him/her that luxury. For people who suffer disappointments and debasing attitudes every day, reminding him/her of the bitterly harsh realities of his/her life is not constructive. Do you have to twist that knife into the carcass of his/her dreams? Let him/her have something to take him/her from day-to-day. Allow him/her to have a star to hang a hope on so when in his/her deepest darkness he/she can look and find that bright pinprick of daylight.

Offer an uncomplicated support. Comfort, do not chide.
Bad things and injustices happen to everyone. Just because he/she expresses anger or cries does not mean he/she is having an “episode”. It is normal to experience emotions.

Be human, you don’t have to always be the strong one. You can cry or have a bad day too. Let your friend see your ups and downs, you are not impervious to normal human emotions.

Help your friend make the changes in his/her life he/she personally, emotionally, and physically needs too to make the best out of his/her life. But, let him/her do it in the way he/she wants and needs too do it. Be a support, not a dictator.

Don’t be afraid to be publicly associated with the person. Show him/her you respect him/her and are not ashamed of being his/her friend.  If he/she makes a mistake, and he/she will, don’t say, “I knew (I told you, I could see) that would happen.” Instead say, “I am sorry you have to go through this”. Give him/her the encouragement to live through it and the strength to learn from/get over his/her mistake. Help him/her cope with the disappointment and hurt in a constructive manner in order for him/her to put it behind them. It is far easier to grow from a negative experience if it is seen as a life lesson than as a failure.

Let your friend know that all people, no matter what the circumstances, deserve forgiveness. He/She deserves forgiveness not just from other people, but from himself/herself as well

Even the “undesirable” or “fallen” have the right to respect and dignity.
Be an advocate for your friend, be proactive in your support of your friend.
Learn everything you can about your friend’s mental illness. Education and understanding is the most effective weapon against stigma, ignorance, and discrimination.

Remember that your friend suffers from a serious mental illness that can cause his/her personal perception of reality to be, at times, warped. Do not assume he/she will be functioning stably at all times, don’t forget they suffer a psychological disability. If your friend is experiencing an altered reality and suffering from delusions, don’t argue with him/her about it. You will not be successful. You will only serve to upset him/her more and may even alienate yourself from his/her life. Do not pander too or agree with his/her delusions. Agree to disagree with him/her. Do not allow him/her to convince you to become an active participant in this delusion, take a hands-off approach to discussions concerning this matter. Listen, comfort, and then kindly let your friend know that you do not share his/her beliefs. Suggest that he/she should really discuss these issues with his/her psychiatrist or mental health worker.

If your friend seems unstable and acts in an inappropriate manner towards you (becomes verbally aggressive or antagonistic) do not take it personally. Many times people suffering from mental illness struggle with inner turmoil that may present itself as “unfriendly” behavior. Many times it is the illness talking. This does not mean that you must endure this behavior unnecessarily. Tell your friend that the questionable behavior is hurtful and you will have to end the conversation/encounter for the time being. But, be adamant that you still care for him/her and will resume contact when he/she has had time to cool off. Make sure that you use “I” statements when explaining to your friend how you feel, do not be accusatory. He/She needs to know that they can make mistakes in his/her behavior, be corrected, and can be forgiven. This is what friendship is all about; the person is cared for enough to be able to have a bad episode without being dismissed as “undesirable” all together.

If you want to help your friend let him/her know in a caring and loving manner about the resources available to him/her. Sometimes a well-intentioned friend is not enough, professionals need to take over.
Help him/her identify dangerous behavior or warning symptoms of a reoccurrence of an episode. If your friend is behaving in an unstable manner let him/her know in a non-threatening way your concern about his/her emotional well-being. Ask him/her in a gentle manner if he/she has been getting enough sleep or taking care of himself/herself lately? (i.e. taking his/her medications or seeing his/her psychiatrist regularly)
Do not introduce your friend to people who may influence his/her life in a detrimental way. Remember your friend is vulnerable and may be easily sucked into unhealthy lifestyle choices.

Do not choose to meet your friend in dangerous places like bars, drinking parties, drug related situations, or high stress events. Many people living with mental illness suffer comorbid or co-occurring illnesses. They may have drug or alcohol related issues, as well as anxiety disorders. Be sensitive to your friend’s life situation; don’t put him/her into scenerios or places that only exasperate his/her struggles with personal life issues.

Sometimes mental illness can cause a person to withdraw and become housebound. Encourage your friend to not isolate himself/herself, but there are just times when it is physically impossible for a sufferer to leave his/her house. Be kind and agree to visit him/her in his/her home if that is what he/she requests.

Your friend may need assistance to leave his/her home. He/She may need a person to escort him/her to the grocery store or a therapy appointment. This may be due to delusional thought patterns or anxiety issues. Do not judge your friend, or treat him/her as if he/she is weak. This is a medical disability, not a stunt or an attempt to be silly. These issues are very real for your friend. The best thing you can do for your friend is to show patience and understanding. You don’t have to agree with his/her feelings or beliefs, but you can be there as an encouraging support. You can show that his/her anguish is very real to you as well by being his/her escort in public. Offer support and encouragement, not exasperation and a condescending attitude.
Do not become indispensable to your friend. Do not become his/her most preferred crutch. You must instill in your friend that you are not the only person who can offer support to him/her. If you do allow him/her to believe you are his/her own personal savior, he/she will become very needy and you will become burned out.

Remember your friend is a precious human being and a place was specially created for him/her here on this Earth. He/She serves a valuable purpose in the big picture of life.  Just be yourself and be a good friend.

The last and final tip I want to mention here before I end this list is friendship with a mentally ill person is not for the faint of heart. If you are one of those uptight people who find displays of emotions difficult to endure than turn around and run now. You can expect to experience things and be asked to do things you never imagined you would find yourself doing when befriending a mentally ailing person. You will be exposed to the most fantastic, frightening, and freaky aspects of the human condition. There will be times, as a friend of an ill person, you will be expected to visit him/her in hospital. You may be confronted with a morose unkempt shadow of the person you know, you need to realize that that person is still the person you befriended who now most desperately needs your love and attention. He/She may be so broken that he/she can no longer express through words his/her anguish and may weep uncontrollably. He/She may talk to you of suicide and the dark aspects of his/her affected thought patterns. If the thought of exposing yourself to the grittiest of emotional experiences terrifies you, do the person in question a favor, run and don’t look back.

Befriending a mentally ill person can be incredibly challenging, but it can also be just as incredibly rewarding. You will laugh harder than you ever have before, you will see the most brilliant of human accomplishments and you will cry your heart out. But, you will never have another friend like him/her, ever.

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