By Debra B. Johnson, Executive Director, St. Clair County Community Mental Health
A critical but often overlooked component of good mental health is having friends. Our friends provide companionship, they increase our sense of community, help create purpose in our lives, and improve our self-confidence and self-worth. Good friends make us happier, reduce
stress, and help us face difficult life moments, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss, or the death of a loved one. They can even help steer us toward good lifestyle choices and away from unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as excessive drinking, smoking or lack of exercise.
Unfortunately, making and keeping meaningful friendships can be a challenge for many adults. Most of us are so busy, responsible for work, raising children and grandchildren, caring for aging parents, doing chores at home, and volunteering in the community. What time we have left is understandably often devoted to spending time with our partners, children, and extended family. By default, making and developing friendships often take a back seat to these priorities. Adults even face challenges in maintaining the friendships they have from less hectic times in their life. Friends can drift apart due to changes in their lives or interests or by moving away from one another. Today, the average American under 40 years old will move 12 times in his or her life, meaning many friendships have an added burden of being long-distance relationships.
Individuals with a mental health issue, who tend to have smaller social circles and socialize more with family than friends, face all these challenges and more. Because most have experienced at least some negative social interactions, they may anticipate rejection, leading them to avoid unnecessary social contact. This may result in individuals with a mental illness missing some of the opportunities others have to learn how to manage difficult social situations.
Together, these issues contribute to reducing the prospects individuals with a mental illness have to make new friends and to maintain existing friendships.
For many individuals with a mental illness, the moment they share information about their mental illness with friends is particularly difficult. Many times people express surprise when they learn about a friend’s mental illness. Usually, they don’t know how to respond and sometimes do nothing at all out of fear of doing the wrong thing, even though in their heart they want to be there for their friend. As a result, even with old friends, people with a mental illness often hesitate to share information about their mental health from fear of stigma, being judged, or
seen as weak.
If you have a friend or family member with a mental illness, there are some simple steps you can take to help that individual overcome their isolation. First, don’t let the individual’s mental illness define your friendship. What your friend needs more than anything else from you are normalcy and stability. You should continue to do the same things you’ve always done with your friend. Second, don’t take no for an answer. Frequently people with a mental illness, feeling stigmatized and misunderstood, retreat from the world and avoid social contact, especially when they are first diagnosed. Your first job as their friend is to continue extending invitations to group and one-on-one activities. Your perseverance will provide the security they need to finally say yes.
Second, it is important to educate yourself about your friend’s mental illness. Often, what a person thinks they know about mental illness is wrong. This is because most people’s perceptions are shaped by popular media such at television, movies and electronic games. Unfortunately, more often than not the information presented in popular media is incomplete or inaccurate, even when the content provides sympathetic portrayals of individuals with a mental illness. However, there are many trustworthy sites on the Internet where one can learn about mental illness and recovery. They include http://www.samhsa.gov/ and http://www.nami.org/ .
Finally, if you have a friend with a mental illness, express concern and support. Be available to listen to them, but never force a conversation. If asked, offer suggestions, but respect your friend’s decisions if they differ from your advice. Remember that recovery from a mental illness can be a long process in which an individual experiences both successes and recurring obstacles. It is at those moments that your friendship is most important.
St. Clair County Community Mental Health provides public services and supports to adults with mental illnesses, children with serious emotional disturbances, individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities and persons with co-occurring substance use disorders. For more information, crisis intervention or to find out if you qualify for public services, please call the Access Center at 1-888-225-4447. Support is available 24 hours-a-day, 7 days a week. General information is also available at the St. Clair County Community Mental Health website, www.scccmh.org or on the Agency’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/SCCCMH.