Friendship and mental health
Friendship is a crucial element in protecting our mental health. Our friends can keep us grounded, help us get things in perspective, and help us manage the problems that life throws at us.
*Last updated: 13 August 2021
"The best thing my friend did for me was that they just accepted me as I was."
"They kept coming to see me even though I didn't seem to want them and they made me laugh."
If we’re experiencing a mental health problem, our instinct might be to hide away and avoid our friends. But friendships can play a key role in helping us live with or recover from a mental health problem and overcome the isolation that often comes with it. We can end up with the strongest relationships with the people who’ve supported us through hard times.
This page looks at:
- talking to friends about your mental health
- supporting a friend with a mental health problem.
Both can be difficult to do, so we have tips on how to start a conversation, offer support, and look after yourself.
Talking to friends about your mental health
If you have a mental health problem, you may feel ashamed of 'admitting' to it. You may feel that you’re bothering or upsetting your friend, fear being labelled, or worry about how your friendship might change.
You don't have to tell your friends - and you certainly don't have to tell everyone. Think about who you might feel comfortable talking to. It might help to write a list of the pros and cons of telling or not telling people about your problem.
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 your mental health problem by accident or 'explain away' medication or appointments. It may also make clear why you’re behaving in a particular way or why you don't want to go out or talk to them much.
"I wanted my friends to know so they...would cut me some slack if I behaved oddly."
How do I tell my friend?
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. Think about whether:
- the place is quiet or noisy, indoors or outside
- you’re on your own or among other people, for instance in a pub or cafe
- you’re 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 if it’s easier than talking to them face to face.
Understanding mental health problems can be difficult, despite how common they are. Be ready for your friend to be shocked or react badly. 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. They may even suggest that you're fine and just need to 'pull yourself together'. Give them time to process what you’ve said.
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. You could show them a book or website that’s helped you understand what you’re experiencing.
Getting help from people other than friends
If you don't feel that turning to a friend is an option, there are other forms of informal help.
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 such as a library, leisure centre or café. You don't have to talk to anyone if you don't want to, but just being around other people can help you feel more connected.
Online communities can also be supportive, whether or not they are focused around mental health problems. Mind’s online community, Side by Side, is a place you can listen, share and be heard.
Supporting a friend who has a mental health problem
If you're the friend of someone with a mental health problem, you may be concerned about them. The most important thing is to show them that you're still their friend and you care about them, whether that’s through your words, a hug, or another way that conveys how you feel.
"My friend asked me questions, didn't just assume things, she really wanted to know."
How can I support my friend?
"My friend realised I had taken an overdose and rang for an ambulance... but has never judged me or criticised my action."
The most valuable support you can provide is just being there to talk and listen. Making time to call, text, visit or invite someone over can make a big difference.
Mental health problems can be misunderstood. Simply acknowledging your friend’s problem, accepting them and treating them with compassion is important.
"My friend phoned me, talked to me about normal stuff, sent me letters, took me out sometimes."
Your friend isn't looking for another mental health professional – they just want your support as a friend. They’re likely to want to keep things as normal as possible, even if you need to adapt some of the activities you used to do together (for example, because they feel anxious in big groups, or their medication makes them tired in the evenings).
Remember that someone who insists that they're fine may actually be in a bad way. They may just need to talk or they may need professional help. Men are often particularly reluctant to talk about emotional issues. Time to Change has tips for talking to someone about their mental health, which can be as simple as asking someone if they’re sure if they tell you they’re feeling fine.
Practical help can be valuable too. Cleaning, shopping and basic household tasks can seem impossible to someone who is having a difficult time. Ask your friend what they need: it could be going to appointments with them, helping them manage their finances or finding information about therapies and services, for example.
I’m supporting a friend but I’m feeling overwhelmed
Some people reach the point where, instead of being a friend, they feel they've become more of a carer. You may feel responsible for your friend and worry about what would happen if you weren't around. It can be painful and embarrassing - on both sides - to admit that this is happening. But there are things you can do to look after yourself and rebalance the friendship. For example:
- Take a break if you need to – some time to yourself can help you feel refreshed.
- Set clear boundaries to the support you can give. Setting boundaries doesn’t mean you’re rejecting someone: it just means you’re being realistic about what you can and can’t do.
- Share your role with others, if you can. Knowing other people are there to support your friend can take the pressure off you.
- Talk about how you’re feeling. Be careful how much you share about the friend you’re supporting, but talking about your feelings can help you feel supported too.
"I gave my friend a lot of support and at times felt close to burning out. Now that my friend has recovered we are closer than before. However, I worry that I might not be able to cope with another episode."