On August 5th, National Friendship Day reminds us how important friends are to our mental well-being. Good friends help prevent loneliness, increase our sense of belonging and purpose, may boost our happiness, reduce our stress levels, improve our self-confidence and self-worth, and help us cope with traumas such as divorce, serious illness, job loss, or the death of a loved one. Good friends may even help us change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as excessive drinking or lack of exercise.
Unfortunately, for many adults, making and keeping strong friendships is difficult. Today, in the United States most peoples’ lifestyles are defined by work, child rearing, caring for aging parents, maintaining their home, and with any spare time left running one errand after another. By default friendships often take a back seat to these priorities. Friends can also drift apart due to changes in their lives or interests or by moving away from one another. It is estimated that the average American will move 12 times in his or her life, forcing people to maintain long-distance friendships while trying to find new friends closer to home.
Individuals with a mental health issue face all these challenges and more. Individuals with a mental illness frequently have a smaller social network and tend to have more family members than friends in their social circle. Due to negative experiences, they may also anticipate rejection from other people, leading them to avoid social contact. As a result, some individuals with a mental illness often find it more difficult to manage social situations and therefore may miss opportunities to make new friends and strengthen existing friendships.
People with mental illness may also hesitate to share information about their mental health with friends out of fear of stigma, being judged, or being seen as weak. Consequently, many times people are surprised when they learn of a friend’s mental illness and don’t know how to respond. This may lead them to doing nothing at all, despite wanting to be there for their friend.
Fortunately, there are some simple steps a person can take to help a friend overcome the isolation that often accompanies a mental illness. First, you should not let a mental illness define your relationship or change the things you do with your friend. The stability and comfort of sharing time with a friend as you always have is essential. Even if they have resisted repeated invitations in the past, continue to invite them to events or gatherings. Don’t give up on them! Remember, individuals with a mental illness often feel stigmatized, misunderstood, and somehow less than everyone else and as a result, he or she may avoid social contact.
Second, it is important to be educated about a friend’s mental illness. Most peoples’ understanding of mental illness is shaped by popular media, such as movies and TV. Unfortunately, most of this information, even when presented sympathetically, is inaccurate. 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, but don’t try to force a conversation. If asked, offer suggestions, but respect your friend’s decisions if they differ from your suggestion.
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.