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Mental illness is one of the most difficult conditions to manage. While you can simply put someone in a MRI machine to diagnose a tumour, you just can't do the same for mental health issues.
As a pharmacist, I can tell you all about pharmacology and how antidepressants affect our brain chemistry. But the truth is drugs can only do so much, and they rarely work without counselling and help from friends and family.
A couple of months ago, a close friend of mine, who is usually sweet, kind, and funny, suddenly started to feel unhappy. I don't want to go into detail but eventually, after several weeks, he just decided he's had enough and cut me out of his life.
The reason I wanted to share my story isn't because I have figured out a way to help an unhappy friend. As I said, he cut me out of his life. I wanted to do this because I actually learned how to pull myself together around him, to avoid making the situation worse.
Know your limits - they need to take the first step.
The first week was the hardest. Not for him, but for me. He refused to talk to me, and I felt so helpless I didn't know what to do to make him listen and feel better.
Sitting alone in my bed that Sunday morning, worrying that he's going to do something stupid, I picked up the phone and called 111 (the UK National Health Service hotline for non-emergency cases). The lady at the other end was very kind, but when she asked, "Is your friend suicidal or posing a threat to others?" I knew she couldn't help me any further.
And I was right. You just can't force someone to get help if they don't want to be helped in the first place. "All you can do is to be there for him," the lady said. Then it's just like one of those lightbulb moments—I was so stuck up in the situation I've forgotten about all common sense. I'm not sure whether it's because I felt relieved, or that I had finally hit my stress threshold, but I started sobbing before I could even thank the lady. I put down the phone as quickly as possible, only hoping she didn't hear me...
Keep your distance (but keep an eye).
Realising you can't force someone to get help is a good place to start, a very good place to start actually. I think we all know that already, but sometimes all we need is just a little reminder.
Since the 111 phone call, I tried my hardest not to contact my friend - no calls, no texts, no nothing. I left him alone, giving him space to think and try to sort out his own issues. If I were to continue bombarding him, it's just going to push him further away.
Out of all steps, this is the hardest step of all. Because you're going with your brain, not your heart. When you truly care about someone, you want to help, and sitting tight certainly doesn't feel like helping. But trust me, letting go is sometimes the first step to healing.
That said, it doesn't mean you should just let your friend be and completely leave them alone. For me, I prefer to keep an eye from afar. I find great comfort from knowing that he's okay. From time to time when I see him online on Facebook or WhatsApp, I know he's still alive and it gives me a sense of relief.
"Being there" can be of many different forms, and not doing anything actively doesn't mean you're not doing anything at all—once you understand that, everything will start to become easier.
Watching from afar is a reasonable strategy, but only if you know when to take action. Failing to spot alarming signs could be dangerous and you could miss valuable opportunities to intervene.
That's why while I'm keeping my distance, I take the time to educate myself about mental illness and all things depression: signs, symptoms, treatment options, non-drug measures, and all sorts of case studies. I also talked to friends who are psychiatrists and psychologists, and even friends who went through depression themselves to try and understand what it's like from their perspective.
For me, it's been an eye-opening experience. I was amazed by how much I've been willing to learn when my heart is in the right place, far more than the amount I learned throughout my four years of university. Now I'm at least more confident that I'd be able to tell if my friend's symptoms are getting worse, and that I'd know what to do if that happens.
To start, you could visit NHS Choices and charity websites like Mind. The information they provide is intended for the public, easy to understand even for people without any medical knowledge. There is really no shortcut to this step; the more time you spend, the more you learn. There is no way around it.
Just be there for them.
Circling back to what the 111 lady told me, the single most important thing you can really do for your friend is to be there. It doesn't mean being in their face 24-7, but be flexible and available for whenever they're ready to talk. You just need to have a little faith that they'll eventually come around and everything is going to work out just fine.
- All advice in this article is from personal experience only and should not be regarded as medical recommendations; if professional medical advice is required, please contact a certified clinician
- That said, I'm a licensed drug dealer (aka a pharmacist) so questions about medicines are welcomed. Find me on Twitter @georgie_c68