I Get by with a Little Help from My Friends: Friendships Strengthen Mental Wellbeing

By Jocelyn Gardner '17
Mental Health Columnist & Webmaster

Your friends and acquaintances form a very important network of people in your life, and I don’t mean in a career path sort of way-- your friends are an incredibly important factor in your mental wellbeing. Even if you don’t like to have friends over or if you prefer alone time, there are probably people you like talking to and laughing with, and these interactions affect both you and them. Since students here at the Claremont Colleges tend to be cooperative rather than competitive, I’m confident that we can quite easily improve how we interact with the idea of mental health and wellness if we start with how we interact with our friends. The best part is that overriding stigma is actually a side effect of getting closer to your friends.

If you’re wondering at this point if and how mental health and friendship relate to you, I can guarantee that at some point, mental health will be relevant in your friendship. In fact, it probably already has been or is currently relevant. Besides, strengthening friendships and feeling connected and invested in your friendships is always fantastic. Even if you don’t think mental health and the way you interact with your friends applies to you, it is extremely likely that it applies to your friends. Obviously, friendships affect all involved, and your behavior can have a profound but invisible effect (of encouraging mental wellbeing) on your friends.

Next, I want to give a little bit of background so that you can understand why I know that friendships are important to mental health. I didn’t really connect with other people my first year at Scripps until we talked about mental health. Obviously, we didn’t sit in a circle and decide, “Let’s talk about mental health.” It started with being open in our day-to-day conversations about what we thought, felt, and had experienced regarding mental health and wellness. The people I knew in my first year spoke about mental health in the same way that they would talk about their high school classes or something funny that happened earlier that morning. This tore down my wall formed by years in a heavily stigmatized and silencing atmosphere. In other words, I learned that it was okay to talk about these topics.

Candid discussions of a friend’s former OCD or current antidepressants, for example, were key in building up the trust needed to stick together through three major crises, a summer from hell, relapsing and worsening mental illness, subsequent burnout, medication disaster and everyday ups and downs. And, not only are we as friendsso much better for all of it, but our bouts with mental illness have become enormously more manageable—even, in one case, disappearing almost altogether.

But enough about me. My life is only relevant in this context in that I can tell you how I was able to achieve that trust, which is so powerful in managing and fighting mental illness. As I mentioned earlier, the trust began to form when stigma was flattened by willingness to share stories and talk about mental health. So, the first tip I have for you is to share. Let your friends/acquaintances (again, my friends weren’t my friends until we built up trust with each other, which involved talking about mental health) know that you are able and willing to talk about such an important yet taboo topic.

If your friends share with you,  show that you are interested and care. Use active listening and ask questions. Also, if you aren’t used to talking about mental illness, try to play it cool—don’t act like you’re talking about something taboo.

For example, don’t talk about it as you would talk about a terminal disease. And try not to act surprised if someone talks about mental illness. It shouldn’t be surprising based on how common it really is.

If someone tells you they have a mental illness, the best thing to do is to learn more about it and to continue to support your friend. Mainly, this looks like taking time to learn about what the friend is going through, what you can specifically do to help, and telling your friend that they have your support. (A lot of people with mental illness are afraid their friends will reject them.) Spend time with your friend: offer to have a meal or study together. Again, don’t treat this person differently. You can find (so many!) resources online about how to support a friend with mental illness. (And if you need help finding said resources, feel free to contact me!)
When someone shares something with you, you probably know that it is frowned upon to tell everyone you know. However, if it is something you feel is important for other people to know, ask the person who told you if you can tell one or two of your mutual friends. (But make sure those people are also trustworthy.)

Hopefully, you and your friends will get to a point at which you will be totally comfortable talking about mental health. This doesn’t mean that there is nothing else you and your friends can do to strengthen your friendship on the mental health front. You can still help each other maintain wellbeing and prevent burnout and stress, which can be different from simply talking about mental health. Do activities together. Study together. Check in on each other. Remind each other things you know are helpful—for example, if a friend has anxiety about academic performance, you can remind her that grades don’t define her worth as a person.

Lastly, if you notice something is “off” with someone you know, don’t be afraid to talk about it. Sometimes a gut feeling can end up saving someone’s life. (I’m not exaggerating!) In less extreme cases, you can make someone’s day by showing that you genuinely care about them. You don’t even have to ask someone if something is wrong outright. Instead, if the person seems “off,” you can invite them to hang out.

My friends and I really bonded over what we’ve been through together, and their support has been instrumental to my success and growth as a person. We still take care of each other in big and small ways, and it is amazing. I know that none of this could have happened if we all didn’t take those risks and listen to that small voice in our heads telling us to tell our story or to ask a question.

The most important thing to remember is that talking about something so stigmatized and often personal is potentially awkward for many people. Mental health is one of those topics which everyone agrees needs to be discussed more but which no one discusses. Rather than focusing on the fact that it isn’t discussed, let’s focus on the fact that a majority of people care and want to reduce stigma. So, take the risk and talk.