Baby Daddy just crushed it on a podcast talking about living with OCD and getting the proper treatment. Per usual when one of us posts about mental health we get a torrent of follow up questions from people experiencing any range of unique situations. However, many people who do not struggle personally with their mental health reach out each time asking one of us how to support their relative or friend who recently shared with them their mental health challenges. The answer is both simple and nuanced. Quite frankly the best reaction looks more or less like a non reaction. Your friend or relative is likely terrified of what you’re going to say in response so neutral to grateful is right initial response. However that is a gross oversimplification to a multilayered situation. Here is a good five step action plan for how to be a good friend to someone living with a mental health condition.
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5) The first words out of your mouth should be: “Thank you for feeling like you could share that with me, I am so flattered you feel safe sharing that with me. What are some key things you’d like me to know about what you’re living with?” In the immediate moment your friend is sharing the information with you, the only acceptable thing to do is listen supportively. This goes triple, quadruple if it’s a mother sharing that her child is living with a condition. Unless you live with the condition yourself do not start talking about remedies you’ve heard of, stories about your cousins who have issues etc. Your friend sharing this information with you likely feels extremely vulnerable, the last thing you want to do is make them regret telling you. And, Karen, now is not the time to push your essential oils or WebMD links.
4) Get curious. If this is a tier 1 friend or a relative, become the expert. Learn everything you can about the condition both academically and by asking thoughtful questions. Learn to spot when they’re experiencing a trigger or need support. Learn how to support them in their challenges. If the person sharing this with you is not a family member or tier 1 friend I still suggest learning what you can about the condition but not necessarily expert status. For example, if your friend discloses that they live with Schizoaffective Disorder, it’s helpful to understand the types of hallucinations they experience and what the best way to support them is if they’re experiencing a hallucination.
3) Collaborate. Is your friend telling you about their condition because they need your support? Most likely yes. Does your friend experience panic attacks? Collaborate in a non stressful time for a helpful action plan on what he needs when he’s experiencing an attack. Does your friend’s child have Tourettes Syndrome and the mom is clueing you in so you can ignore the tics? Follow suit. Come up with ways to help the new mom like dropping off food or offer to watch the baby so mom can nap (or just collab on her rap video with her).
2) Don’t disappear. Many people get uncomfortable about their friend’s mental health conditions (due to unfair stigma) and abandon them. If Jeff went away for chemo or was in the hospital for open heart surgery people would’ve come from far and wide to offer to babysit or cook us a meal. Instead when we told people he was away receiving mental health treatment people scattered. My basketball team and a mom I hosted a podcast with are the ONLY people who stepped up to check on me during the entire time he was gone. People treated us like we were contagious when we needed community the most.
1) Understand appropriate boundaries. This goes both ways for the person living with a mental health challenge and for you the friend. It’s natural to want to rush in and play hero – which at times can look like doing a load of laundry for your friend with depression – but can get unhealthy and turn codependent if you’re not aware of your ego projection. A good bet is doing random acts of service when you know their struggles are flaring. Taking over all functions of a friend’s life is codependent.
Obviously this is not a catch all, but I did want to put a sort of stop gap out there for all you folks who are confused on what the right things to say are when a friend or family member discloses their mental health diagnosis. If you have a condition yourself I’d LOVE to hear what works for you when you tell someone about your condition. Or we can swap “can you believe what this fool said” stories, I have tons of those!