Mental Health Month “Friends without benefits”

Friendship.

Watching TV shows, reading books, the influence of an ideal, ‘friends forever’ the friends who are there when you need them, friends for life, friends through thick and thin.

Probably should preface this with “unless you are mentally ill”

Why?

Mentally ill people struggle to maintain life-long friendships and connections. An unkind soul may say “can you blame anyone for not being able to put up with THAT?”

Yes.

One reason mentally ill people struggle is the sense of isolation, loss, abandonment, and judgement, all discussed before. Friendship and ties to the community is the basis for survival for most people. Isolation and rejection can lead to suicide and worsening illness. It is not the duty of anyone to befriend a mentally ill person but equally as a society if we put our rapid judgement aside and turned from only seeking ‘fun happy people’ to socialize with, and gave a little thought to those suffering, our empathy would go a long way.

We are selfish on the whole when it comes to friendships. We don’t want to ‘bother’ too much, we don’t want to make an effort. We want something easy and fun. If it’s not we’re likely to drop it.

But the effort we put into our children, our families, our marriages, should equally be considered when looking at friends in need. If we cannot be a good friend are we even a friend? Or are we just a fair-weather friend?

Many people I have spoken with have talked about how much it hurt to be ‘friend dumped’ and how often this occurs when they are going through a hard time. The worst being, it can compound the already existing feelings of worthlessness and self-blame.

It is not the responsibility of others to take care of mentally ill people but it begs the question … if you are only friends with someone when the going is good, are you really friends? If you only want to be friends with someone without any strings attached and no difficult times, how invested are you? In short, are you even a friend?

Friendship is perhaps an art that is lost on us these days, with our increasingly ‘busy’ lives and selfish preoccupations. But remember, society functions well when all of us care about those in our society. If we simply live for ourselves and give no regard to others and their well-being, are we really the good and giving people we envision ourselves to be?

If we are Christian is this the Christian way? If we are Buddhist is this the way of the Buddha? If we are aiming for empathy and treating others as we would hope we would be treated, are we acting accordingly? What would happen if we suffered from a mental illness? What would we expect?

It is worthwhile considering this. A close friend of mine became incredibly ill with a brain tumor and she observed that she lost many friends, including those who went to her church. It showed her the time observed adage that you know who your friends are in your moments of crisis and need. This is where physical and mental health share something in common, in both instances, people flee the individual like rats from a sinking ship.

Finally we can say this is something both mentally ill and physically ill people experience. But why?

People are afraid of illness. They see someone with a brain tumor and act like it’s contagious. They know it’s not logically but this is an instinctive fear. They want to avoid sadness at any cost, they want to avoid reality at any cost, nobody wants to dwell on the possibility of death. It takes a very strong soul to want to go there.

Consequently at your time of need, the very hour you really need people there, you are deserted. Before I began visiting the hospital regularly I was completely unaware of this, I had no idea how many hospital rooms were emptied of visitors and support systems, how many go without any friends to comfort them in their hour of need.

I recall as a kid going to see a friend who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the state hospital and how he talked about losing all of his friends. It seems like not much has changed.

And ask yourself this … how much would it take to care?

Recently another acquaintance developed Terminal Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer, when asked, her colleagues, who had worked with her for TWENTY YEARS put off going to visit, until someone posted on Facebook ‘she’s going to die! Go see her before she does!’ and then, the herd mentality took over and everyone went to visit. It was ingenuous and false, and I came to see, these people who had worked with this woman for two decades, really didn’t care, they wanted it over with.

I understand the knee jerk response to death and all things unpleasant, but we’re all going to die, is this how we would wish others to react to us? Empathy means, consideration of how we treat others, as much as how others treat us, and the two are connected by an understanding that it cannot be a one way street. As painful as it may be, supporting those in their hour of need is what makes the world a better place. If we are too busy to attend to that, what does it say about our priorities?

The same applies to the mentally ill. This can literally be a life saver, a life line, a much-needed support network. Suicide often occurs because of isolation and a feeling that the world would be a better place if I were not in it. Surely losing friends and being ignored, adds to that feeling and thus, the reverse is true if loyalty and constancy exist.

Obviously some friendships have an expiry date and that’s okay, that’s the nature of the beast, but if you’ve stopped calling someone because you are fed-up with their mental illness and it’s not ‘fun anymore’ consider this, what would you want if you were going through the same thing? Should friendship simply be about benefits?

Mental Health Month

Fortunately quite a few people are making time for this important subject. Raising awareness.

Before you click off thinking; “I’ve heard this before / I know this already” consider the following;

  1. If you have not suffered from a mental health issue you’re in the minority

2. More people die from mental health influenced factors than anything else

3. There is today more depression in the western hemisphere than ever before and our answer is to medicate using medication that is poorly proven to resolve depression and was only ever meant as a temporary solution, with therapy a rare and restricted ‘luxury’

4. We are cutting back so many mental health resources we now have less than we did in 1970, yes that means we’re going backwards not forward

5. Whilst some mental health issues are better known and understood today than 40 years ago, the terrible truth is … they are judged just as much as they were before people knew more about them and those who suffer from mental illness are often pushed to breaking-point by others who see mental-illnesses as a “choice” even by carelessly chosen words.

Words like – Depression is looking back / anxiety is looking forward / wellness is in the present.

People may say things like ‘snap out of it’ and be well meaning even but imagine saying that to someone who has cancer?

The implied condemnation / judgement / criticism or just put-down in many ‘helpful’ comments furthers the progression of the disease.

Ultimately mental health is seen as a sign of character. If you are mentally ill you have a weak character. If you are not mentally ill you have a strong character. Follow the progression of that.

Strength does not come into whether someone is mentally ill or not, any more than if someone has breast cancer. But like blaming a smoker for their lung cancer, most people see mental illness as something that someone can change ‘if they just tried’ and more of a character flaw, a negativity, a bad attitude, than a crippling, life-reducing disease.

Still think we don’t need to talk about mental illness?