The Importance of Friendships for Good Mental Health
Friendships are an important part of life and are among the most valuable relationships we have. We may talk to friends in confidence about things we wouldn’t discuss with our families. Friends add enjoyment to our lives and provide comfort in times of need.
Friendship is a crucial element in protecting our mental health. We need to talk to our friends and we want to listen when our friends want to talk to us. Our friends can keep us grounded and can help us get things in perspective. It is worth putting effort into maintaining our friendships and making new friends. Friends form one of the foundations of our ability to cope with the problems that life throws at us.
Benefits of friendship
Good friends are good for your health. Friends can help you celebrate good times and provide support during bad times. Friends prevent loneliness and give you a chance to offer needed companionship, too. Friends can also:
- Increase your sense of belonging and purpose
- Boost your happiness and reduce your stress
- Improve your self-confidence and self-worth
- Help you cope with traumas, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss or the death of a loved one
- Encourage you to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as excessive drinking or lack of exercise
Friends also play a significant role in promoting your overall health. Adults with strong social support have a reduced risk of many significant health problems, including depression, high blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index (BMI). Studies have even found that older adults with a rich social life are likely to live longer than their peers with fewer connections.
Why is friendship important when someone is unwell?
When someone has a mental health problem or is experiencing mental distress, it is important to try to keep friendships going, even though people with mental health problems often want to see their friends less than usual.
Friendship can play a key role in helping someone live with or recover from a mental health problem and overcome the isolation that often comes with it. It’s natural to worry when a friend is troubled and most of us don’t want to give up on a friend in distress, however difficult it may be to support them. Many people who do manage to keep their friendship going feel that it’s stronger as a result.
Friendships work both ways. A mental health problem doesn’t mean that you’re never able to support or laugh with someone else.
How can friendships change?
Friendships change and sometimes they fade away or end abruptly. You may want to take time to reflect on each of your friendships and what they offer you.
You are an active partner in your friendships. If a friendship is not beneficial to both of you, you have the power to negotiate changes to the activities you have always done together. On some occasions, you may decide that it’s best for a friendship to end.
If a friend no longer contacts you, it’s understandable to feel rejected, but you are not responsible for other people’s reaction to your problems. If one person ends your friendship, it doesn’t mean that others will do the same.
If you are the friend of someone experiencing mental health problems who seems to be withdrawing from your friendship, try to understand what your friend may be going through. Their difficulties may be only temporary. Give them the space they need and make sure they know how they can contact you at a later date if they decide to get back in touch.
Should I tell my friend about my mental ill health?
Some people never make it past the first hurdle: talking about the fact that they are experiencing mental distress. If you have a mental health problem, you may feel ashamed of ‘admitting’ to it. You may feel that you are bothering your friend or fear being labelled.
You don’t have to tell your friends – and you certainly don’t have to tell everyone. There is no need to tell anyone about what you are experiencing if you don’t feel comfortable with it.
Tough as it can be, talking to close friends can be important for both of you. Even if you don’t talk about it again, having the issue out in the open means that you don’t have to worry about mentioning it by accident or ‘explain away’ medication or appointments. It may also make clear why you may be behaving in a particular way or why you don’t want to go out or talk to them much.
It’s ultimately up to you to decide to tell. Some people will benefit from telling many friends. Others may benefit by telling a couple of close friends and waiting to tell others. You are an expert on your own mental illness and can decide for yourself.
If you’re stressed about whether to tell other people, you might feel better if you write down a list of pros and cons. Maybe some people won’t understand. But maybe you can also see benefits to telling the people who will understand. If you’re afraid, the list of pros can remind you of the rewards of overcoming your fear.
How do I tell my friend?
Pick a friend you trust as the first person you tell. Work out how to talk about your mental health problem in a way that will make it as easy as possible for both of you to avoid embarrassment.
You may want to practise your opening sentence or you may want to play it by ear. Choose a time and a place where you will both feel comfortable. You may want to think about whether:
- the place is quiet or noisy, indoors or outside
- you are on your own or among other people, for instance in a pub or cafe
- you are doing an activity together, such as going for a walk, or just sitting down for a chat.
You could phone or write to your friend, but if you do, try and talk to them face to face afterwards as well.
Some people react dramatically to news like this. Be ready for your friend to be shocked or not to take it in at first. Although mental health problems are common, this may be the first time they’ve heard someone talk about having one.
They may feel awkward and not know how to respond. This may be because they feel so worried about you or perhaps your news has struck a chord with something in their own life.
Most people don’t know very much about mental health issues so it may be a good idea to tell your friend about the problem itself, but don’t overwhelm them. Take it one step at a time.
How can I support my friend?
People with mental health problems often need different things from their friends at different times and friends show their support in different ways.
If you’re the friend, the most valuable support you can provide is just being there to talk and listen. People really appreciate that their friends have made time to contact them, visit them and invite them round.
Mental health problems are so misunderstood that someone who acknowledges your problem, continues to accept you and treats you with compassion is doing something extremely important to aid your recovery.
Your friend isn’t looking for another mental health professional and should expect nothing more than your affection and your support as a friend. Some people with mental health problems want to go on being as ‘normal’ as possible with their friends and that may mean continuing to laugh and have fun together. They don’t want to be identified by their problem, even if you need to adapt some of the activities you used to do together.
“I didn’t know how often to ask ‘how she was’ (especially in front of other people).”
However, someone who insists that they’re ‘fine’ may actually be in a pretty bad way. They may just need to talk or they may need professional help. Men are often particularly reluctant to talk about emotional issues.
Practical help can be valuable, too. Cleaning, shopping and basic household tasks can seem impossible to someone who is having a difficult time. Many people really appreciate friends who help them manage their finances or take them to appointments – or indeed just take them out. Another form of practical help is by tracking down information – for example about therapies, organisations and services. (See a list of contacts here)
If you feel more comfortable offering practical help than emotional support, explain this to your friend. It is important that you acknowledge their distress, even if you don’t talk about it much.
Mental Health First Aid
These are five steps that research shows can help people with mental health problems:
- Assess risk of suicide or self-harm
- Listen non-judgmentally
- Give reassurance and information
- Encourage the person to get appropriate professional help
- Encourage self-help strategies.
Some friendships happen naturally and some need a little more effort. It is helpful to take the initiative when it comes to maintaining your friendships. If you want to start a friendship, don’t wait for the other person to reach out to you. Post a message on Facebook, call them to share a story about something you have previously talked about or send a quick text message about something you both enjoy doing.
Remember that having good friends means being a good friend. Listen to your friends when they talk about what is going on in their life and offer advice the best you can. Keep their secrets and be a trustworthy confidant.
If you decide to tell your friend about your mental health condition, don’t be frustrated if they do not understand right away. Answer any questions they might have and remember that they are just trying to comprehend your experience. If they still are unable to handle it or pull away from you, be thankful for your time with them and consider it a learning experience.
Making friends isn’t always easy. Test the waters by acting slowly and don’t be discouraged if every person you meet doesn’t turn out to be a best friend. Every friendship, whether short or lifelong, teaches us something and helps to shape the person we become.
What other support is available?
If you don’t want to turn to your friends, or your friends just don’t want to listen or you want to take some of the pressure off them, there are other forms of informal help.
Self-help and peer support groups are often useful. You may have little in common with everyone else in the room, but you will share one thing.
You could join a group centred around an activity: a book group, a chess club or an exercise class.
If you don’t want to join a group, try going to places where there are lots of people. You could go to your local library. Leisure centres usually have cafés. You don’t have to talk to other people if you don’t want to, but will be in company while you sit with a drink and a newspaper for a while.
Online communities can also be supportive, whether or not they are focused around mental health problems. It can be reassuring to know that this is an arena where nobody knows anything about your personal life.
Remember, it’s never too late to build new friendships or reconnect with old friends. Investing time in making friends and strengthening your friendships can pay off in better health and a brighter outlook for years to come.
(Information taken from MentalHealth.org)
One in four people in the UK will suffer from a mental health issue each year and yet two-thirds have no one to speak to about their mental health, according to a poll for Time To Talk Day 2019 by Time To Change.
While it is a legal requirement to have physical first aiders in every workplace, and in many public places and events, we’re still a long way from seeing our mental health treated in the same way.
Here at Be Empowered we hope to change that by training people as mental health first aiders to be able to assist those suffering with mental ill health in the workplace, and signposting them to get the appropriate professional help for them.
Click below to find out about how you can train with us!