Friends and loved ones of those experiencing mental health problems occupy the liminal space between within and without – so what do they have to say?

Parents, siblings, extended family, friends, co-workers and peers, all of these people matter in varying ways to individuals. They are our support networks. Without them, many of us would crumble, I know I certainly would. This column has tended to focus on those experiencing mental health, which is of course vital to raising awareness, normalising the topic and fostering openness. 

However, what about the above mentioned groups? They witness the breakdowns, they see the pain in their loved ones faces, and they are present throughout treatments, relapses and setbacks. 

I decided it was time to have their voices heard. Therefore, I interviewed my long suffering best friend. She has seen me lose my proverbial rag more times than I’d like to admit, she has also helped others close to her with mental health issues and, as will be explained, she plays a vital role in providing access to services for total strangers every single day.

So what kind of experiences have you had with mental health?

“Along with my personal life, I’ve had a lot given my profession. I am a case worker in Adults Health and Social Care, I work in our Contact and Resolution Team. It’s a bit similar to the kind of role a Social Worker has, but I’m not a qualified social worker. So, I take referrals and deal with safeguardings, but I work with a whole range of clients, I work with older people, people with learning disabilities and I also work with people with mental health concerns. Hence, by working with mental health as part of my job, as well as through my personal life, I’ve got a lot of experience in that field.”

Has your profession equipped you to help friends and family?

“Well, I feel like it’s the other way around, because my personal experiences came before my professional. So, actually I’ve found by having the personal experiences prior to the professional ones I am better at my job. This is because the personal experiences have helped me make judgements in my professional capacity, because I’m already used to the kind of impact that mental health concerns have on people.”

When your friends in the past have come to you, how have you reacted?

“Well previously my first thought has been panic, because I think it’s a very new thing that people have been open about their mental health concerns. Before the year 2000, it was very much *hush* *hush*, the only people that had mental concerns were people with full on psychiatric problems, rather than more day-to-day issues such as anxiety and depression. 

So, I think it was, in a way, a good thing that my friends came to me first, before they went to an adult, because I think when, for example, everything with ****** was happening, it was 2013. This is when I was a teenager, and I think this was before adults had the awareness that they now have about mental health in 2018. As although my first reaction was to get adults in involved – we had the school and both our mum – it didn’t necessarily help. The school didn’t really know what the problem was or how to deal with it, because they’d never really had much experience with it. And both our mums worked/had worked with clients who had learning disabilities and others with mental health problems, and with them it was in a residential setting, so all of the issues that the people who they supported had were really severe. Therefore, I think it was difficult for them to know that with ‘less’ severe issue you don’t have to act the same as you would a ‘more’ severe issue. So, I think with them, they panicked and did what they would do when they were supporting their clients, which was not really appropriate for her, because she had completely different support needs to those clients.”

So, would you say that people in our current age bracket are more aware of and/or open about mental health concerns that older age groups (obviously excluding your colleagues who work with it every day)?

“Yes, I think we are sometimes more open to learning about it and supporting people with mental health needs, because as a teenager I remember there was almost a ‘trend’ of people self-harming, experiencing depressive tendencies and I think that has a lot to do with the internet and social media and their impact on our age group. For us there was so much more information readily available, so I think because our age group, specifically, experienced the kind of ‘trends’ around eating disorders, depression, suicide, self-harm – I mean I remember many people at school who would self-harm and then try to show off their scars as much as possible, because it was part of this trend. Obviously, I’m not saying that because it was part of this trend they didn’t self-harm because they had issues, but I think it was because it was a trend it made it easier for people to do it because they felt like it was more normal. 

Therefore, I think it’s an easier conversation to have with somebody our age, because we understand it more because we’ve been exposed to it in different ways since we were teenagers/young adults. And I think its easier to accept something you’ve been exposed to for a longer period. Now this is a bit of an odd comparison, but it’s a bit like how in the nineties, the older generations were more homophobic and didn’t understand why that (the homophobia) was wrong, but the younger generations were very accepting. So, I think it’s a bit similar to that. Now you’ve got the people who aren’t used to mental health being a talked about subject and who are still very “This should behind closed doors, you shouldn’t be talking about it.” And then you’ve got the people like us who are used to it and who have been exposed it a lot and we’re like “Well actually its good to have open discussion about this, because it helps.”

So, going back to my third question, you said you felt panic, what other emotions did you experience?

“I felt a little bit confused, because the situation I mentioned previously was the first time I had proper contact with mental health and from where I was I couldn’t understand why they felt unhappy. And from where I was I couldn’t understand what drove them to the point where they felt they needed to end their life, because as an outsider looking in at their life, I couldn’t see anything wrong with it. So, I think it took a bit of adjusting to understand that what’s ‘ok’ in your opinion, is not ‘ok’ in another person’s opinion. You might look at something and think “I would be fine in that situation”, but someone else could look at that situation and it could make them suicidal. And yeah, I struggled with that, and hence why I was initally confused. At first, I didn’t understand where these feelings were coming from, because I didn’t know enough about depression and therefore didn’t understand that it could lead people to have suicidal tendencies. 

So, it was a shock, that I’d say was the main emotion.”

Have you ever felt frustrated with friends, who you’ve seen struggling with mental health problems, not ‘helping themselves’ as much as they could have been or not sticking to changes?

“I think with the above mentioned situation I didn’t experience that very much, because I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the whole thing. However, I think with you, I’d started my job in Adult Social Care, so I understood it more, I’d had three/four more years of life experiences and I’d had a boyfriend who had gone through similar things early on in our relationship, so I was a bit more used to it. Hence, it did frustrate me when I would make suggestions that I know would help, because similar things had helped clients and those close to me. I mean it is frustrating when you’re explaining these things to someone, knowing their useful and they’re not following through with it. 

But although I’ve experienced that frustration I’ve tried to not let that frustration come across, because as frustrated as an ‘outsider’ you get, that frustration is about 5%, of the frustration that the person dealing with it is experiencing. Because at the end of the day, just because they’re suffering with a mental health concern, doesn’t mean they are stupid, they know what’s going to help them and they know the advice is good, but that doesn’t really make a difference because they are in a state of mind where they can’t help themselves. So, you can get frustrated, but you have to realise that the frustration thay you’re feeling is nothing on theirs.”

Statistics say that 1 in 4 people will experience mental health issues, meaning that nearly every person with come into contact with it in some way, do you think those acting as support networks are sometimes forgotten? And it’s not appreciated that they can also be affected by being part of the circumstances?

“Yeah and I have experienced that as well, previously I have been supporting multiple people, with various issues, all at once and its made me feel a lot more anxious. Not just for them, but it has also made me worry more about things in my own life that wouldn’t usually bother me. It does make you panic, because it’s a lot of responsibility to be someone supporting someone struggling. And I do think that’s sometimes forgotten about.

But I think the most important thing to remember when you are supporting someone with a mental health concern is to take the advice you give out. Because if you’re sat there telling people to do this, that and the other to make their anxiety less, but you’re feeling an increase in your own anxiety, you know what to do about it because you’ve already told somebody else to do about it.”

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