"I know that my recovery has been helped by the conversations with friends in ways I can’t describe."Prawny

For those who are or have been struggling with their mental health, friends and family can be vital. I find it incredibly reassuring to have someone to talk to when I am panicking – whether face-to-face or by video. They can help to ground me when I need it most. Sometimes, the most important thing is knowing that someone is there for me, ready to listen without judging.

Mental-health professionals talk about ‘support networks’. Counselors, psychologists, pastoral care at university and doctors can play in these roles. Their training and background help people to navigate their way to better mental health, giving careful advice and reassurance to those in need. But personal relationships are important as well. Though of course each case is different, most people do not see mental health professionals on a daily basis. Instead, it is often our friends, our partners and our families who provide most of this loving support. I know that my recovery has been helped by conversations with friends in ways I can’t describe. For me, there is a definite difference between a doctor’s diagnostic approach and a meaningful late-night phone-call.

In every case, support from friends and family has been crucial

I understand just how incredibly fortunate I am to have people like this in my life. I know that others may not feel the same about those around them. There are also specific phone lines anyone can call for support, such as the Samaritans (116 123) or Cambridge Nightline (01223 744444).

Because of the way conditions such as depression and anxiety often work, people suffering can easily find themselves feeling isolated. Depression often causes social withdrawal; the erratic behaviours caused by bipolar disorder can push relationships to their limits. I’ve been on both sides of this, as several people close to me have also been diagnosed with these conditions. In every case, support from friends and family has been crucial. Without training, sometimes without knowing exactly what we are dealing with, we have to be there for each other.

Sometimes, giving this support is about perseverance. My anxious periods can last for days, and I can’t thank my friends enough who have stayed with me and seen me through them.

"This requires us to talk to each other and break past any reticence we might have"Prawny

I’ve found that, since I decided to be open about my mental health, my friendships have blossomed in ways I could never have imagined. My friends know about my counselling sessions, the strange ways my medication affects me and even my other medical conditions (because I have never been someone to do things half-heartedly, even illnesses). This column itself has added to this: since I started, I have had friends from all parts of my life getting in contact with me to talk about their own experiences. Every time, I’m humbled by how willing they are to share with me. It’s both touching and heart-breaking to know that I’m not alone. Sometimes, we all need someone to listen to us.

I believe, sincerely, that everyone has been through something. Everyone has a story to tell, if you are ready to hear them tell it. I also believe that recent statistics which show significant rises in the numbers of people disclosing mental health conditions are signs of an improvement. The more we accept these problems and discuss them, the more we can help each other.

Being open and honest isn’t just nice – it is vital

The friends I reach out to for support most often seem to be the ones who have experienced mental illness themselves. I can count at least seven separate friendships where this is the case. Often, we didn’t know about each other’s conditions at first – but somehow, we connected more readily. Maybe the shared experience simply created a level of similarity between us which has been difficult to find elsewhere. Maybe it is because we have each been forced by circumstances to be as open as possible, including with each other. Maybe it is simply because when we are together, we know that there are some things we understand implicitly without having to say.

Though we aren’t trained, we share support. And the key to this is always knowing each other, properly. We each experience our minds differently and display different symptoms. Our warning signs are different because we handle ourselves in different ways. As a result, being open and honest isn’t just nice – it is vital. It can be the difference between knowing when someone is in crisis and when they aren’t in a good mood. This requires us to talk to each other and break past any reticence we might have. I’ve needed this support. I’ve tried to give it. I’ve also failed to, several times. Every instance has forced me to learn something new.

This means knowing our own limits. I can find it hard to remember this. I am not a trained professional; I can’t always be responsible for everyone else’s problems or take them on as my own. It’s a hard lesson to accept, sometimes. All I can do is my best.


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One of the most alienating features of my conditions is a sense that some of my friends are drifting away because they no longer know how to approach me. Sometimes, just when I’ve needed support from the people around me, it can seem that my problems only push them away. That feeling, whether it is accurate or caused by my anxious worry, can be hard to get past.

When I’m having a breakdown, it can feel like my horizon has shrunk to the limits of my body. I can’t imagine why others might want to help me. I can feel as if I shouldn’t reach out because I’m just acting egotistically. I don’t want to burden anyone else. These are feelings which I have to counter. Having friends who know me entirely, who will tell me the truth when I need it and reassure me when I’m scared, can make this experience much less alienating.

What I have been trying to say is that we all need each other. We need each other’s compassion and understanding. We need to be listened to and we also need to listen. Especially when it comes to mental health problems, commitment to and acceptance of each other is one of the most important things we can give. Support networks work in all kinds of ways. Sometimes, they mean just having someone to talk to.