I’ve always felt like being a good friend isn’t rocket science, even to people with mental health issues. However, I’ve also known what it’s like to feel completely hopeless, unable to get out of bed for days at a time. I’ve had to run out of social situations—looking like a complete jerk—when an unfounded fear that I’d die right there if I didn’t flee came over me. And then I’ve avoided those people I ran out on for weeks because I was terrified they now hated me.
I’ve been so fortunate in my life that I’ve never been suicidal. It’s been a lot of luck and a lot of really incredible friends that have held me in this stable place. But, still, I can understand what people in those situations might be feeling.
I’m starting to understand, though, that many people are lucky enough to have never had to deal with depression or anxiety that impacted their lives in any real, significant way and as such don’t know how to be a supportive friend in times of mental instability.
Here are a few things that you should keep in mind when a friend is wadding through tough shit.
1. When someone is having a panic attack, don’t shake them
Seriously. That won’t help. That will actually make it worse. Also, please don’t ask over and over what is wrong and what you can do. Breathing is difficult during a panic attack. For real, I’ve been positive I was going to suffocate and then started freaking out about who would take my cats when I was six feet under. As you can imagine, talking to you isn’t really high on the priority list. The best thing you can do is be patient, speak quietly and make it clear that you’re not judging, you’re just there to support them.
That might mean getting a glass of water and sitting quietly next to them. That might mean rubbing their back and telling them it will all be okay. That might mean putting on some calming music or a meditation. Try a few things while paying attention to your friend’s reaction and you’ll figure it out.
Better yet, if you know a friend has panic attacks just ask them what they want you to do in the event of one before it even happens. It’s going to be shitty for both of you, but it’ll be an interesting life experience, right?
2. Listen to what your friend is asking for
If your friend is asking you to just listen, don’t take that as an invitation to give your unsolicited advice. If they just want to watch a funny movie to cheer themselves up, don’t try to make them talk about what’s going on. You can ask permission to give your take on things and make it clear that if they want to talk, you’d be happy to be their sounding wall, but don’t try to push someone to do something they are not comfortable with. Sometimes a person’s just got to vent a little or take a step back to get their head wrapped around their issues, and, trust me, they probably know better than you do what is best for them.
If you feel like you’ve got some valuable advice, let them know after they’ve chilled out that you may have some suggestions for making life better and ask if they’d like to hear them.
3. Don’t start putting you first during an emergency situation
Of course, you shouldn’t be doing things you don’t feel comfortable doing. I’ve had friends whose depression was so deep I couldn’t handle being around them for long because it seriously impacted my own mental health. That is totally okay. You can’t help anyone else if you’re not taking good care of yourself. There’s no shame in admitting someone’s issues are too tough for you to take on.
However, the time to tell someone that the severity of their anxiety is too much for you to handle is not when driving them home after a particularly bad panic attack landed them in the ER and they’re already crying in the passenger seat next to you. The time for telling someone you can’t deal with their suicidal thoughts is not when they’ve called you because they’re contemplating taking their life and need the support of a friend who knows their situation.
Wait until they’re doing okay or are in a stable place where other people can swoop in as soon as you leave, and then be totally honest with them. Make sure to emphasize that you love them, will always support them no matter what and it’s not their own fault. Be gentle, but set boundaries if you need to. Someone dealing with that kind of shit probably has to set their own boundaries with people, so they’ll get it. Just make sure you do it before a crucial moment when they’re having trouble hanging on.
From the perspective of someone who has dealt with mental health issues, I understand that not everyone knows how to deal with me. That’s so totally okay. I get it that I can be hard to be around. I get the impulse to shake me during a panic attack. We just all need to get better at communicating our needs and our boundaries in order to better take care of one another.