5 Things You Shouldn't Do When Your Friend Has A Mental Illness

by Zoe Homonoff
Carolyn Lagattuta

Because the majority people are afraid to discuss mental illnesses, not many people know how to treat those affected by them.

As someone who lives with a mental illness, I've noticed many of my friends have trouble with the role it plays in our relationships. A lot of people also make assumptions about how it affects me and my life, without realizing the misconceptions they're promulgating.

So, here are five things you should never do if you have a friend with a mental illness:

1. Don't push them too far outside their comfort zone.

It's important to remember everyone has limits, and your limits may be different from someone else's.

This isn't just something that applies to people with mental illnesses, either. Everyone is unique and should be treated as such.

Some people might have boundless or nonexistent comfort zones, and they are seemingly limitless and fearless. It's great to be fearless, but that doesn't mean other people have to be or should be.

Say you want to go to a new restaurant with great burgers, but there are no food options there for your vegetarian friend. Would you force them to eat meat anyway?

Maybe they can eat meat — they're not necessarily allergic — but that doesn't mean they need to. You wouldn't force them, right?

Well, say you have a friend who has an anxiety disorder, and you want to take them with you to the amusement park. You really want to go on the biggest roller coaster, but your friend says they're afraid to go on.

Why? It's because they're afraid of heights. You might want to encourage them to go on with you or nudge them a little to push their boundaries.

So the question is, is this incident any different than the incident with your vegetarian friend? I'll let you answer that yourself.

Encouragement is an important part of any healthy friendship. We just need to remind ourselves there's a fine line between encouraging a friend and expecting more than they can or want to handle.

2. Don't make fun of their symptoms or their disorder unless they're OK with it.

A person's feelings about whether or not it's OK to joke about their condition will vary based on their personality and what kind of disorder(s) this person has. It also depends on what kind of joke you're telling.

For example, if someone is struggling with self-harming behavior and is uncomfortable talking about it to most people, it wouldn't be wise to joke that because you got a bad grade on an exam, you're going to have to cut yourself.

It's really hard to do this, but try to put yourself in their shoes by thinking about something you're self-conscious about, or something you've told them in confidence that you don't tell most people.

Would you be OK with them joking about this thing? What if they asked you first before making jokes? Would that be better?

I think most people would agree it's better to ask directly if something's OK if you're not sure whether or not it is, instead of risking damaging your friendship. Just think before you speak.

3. Don't coddle or shield them.

For me, I think one of the most frustrating parts of high school was that my friends were afraid to joke around with me. In their eyes, I was too fragile to be messed with.

I remember one of them pointed out that they felt as if they were “walking on eggshells” when they were with me. That was definitely a punch to the gut.

Just because someone with a mental illness is struggling or acts “differently” than someone you'd consider to be “normal” doesn't mean you should treat this person so differently.

Poke them a little. Joke around with them. It's true that some people can tolerate joking more than others, but that's where the whole “open communication” thing comes in.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to communicate with literally everyone important to you in your life, your friends included.

It's also important not to shield the truth from them. Sooner or later, the truth always comes out.

If you are upset with me or with something I've done in the past, then talk to me about it. Don't assume everyone can read your mind, and definitely don't assume the truth will hurt them more than being lied to.

In all honesty, I'd personally rather you tell me how angry you are with me than you lie about it to my face.

It's true that someone with a mental illness might react differently to the truth than someone without one. But, that doesn't mean they don't deserve to hear it.

4. Don't try to be their therapist or assume you know what's best.

Someone with a mental illness is not coming to you to be reprimanded, critiqued or mentored for this mental illness. Unless someone asks you specifically, don't offer advice on what they should be doing in their treatment.

If they're struggling with self-harm, don't check them for marks. If they're struggling with an anxiety disorder, don't purposefully expose them to what they fear without permission.

If they're struggling with a mood disorder, don't force them to get out of bed when they say they can't. If they're struggling with an eating disorder, don't pressure them to eat a certain amount at every meal.

These sound like protective behaviors, but they're not for a friend to do. They're for a therapist to do.

A professional has had years of training to help people through their mental illness. You do not. Please keep that in mind.

So, what can you do?

Tell them that you're there whenever they need you. Tell them that you care about them. Give them hugs and high fives. Cheer them on in their recovery from the sidelines.

5. Don't give up on them.

I've been on both sides of the equation: I know it can be challenging to see someone you care about go through so many emotional difficulties. There have been times when I myself have wanted to walk away from amazing friendships, simply because I felt I couldn't deal with their moods, anxieties or anger.

But if a person is truly trying their best, that's really all you can ask of them. To give up on a friendship because things are getting tough for one or both of you is easy to do.

Walking away doesn't solve the problem, but it does make it appear to go away. That's the thing, though: It appears to go away, but that doesn't mean that the problem is gone forever.

Part of being human is the fact we all make mistakes, and that no one is perfect. Part of being human is also the fact we are social creatures, and we thrive on interaction.

As humans, being social and being imperfect makes for imperfect relationships with other humans. That's just life.

If you can't accept someone's mental illness as an obstacle that's only one piece of the puzzle, then they are not the problem in the friendship. You are the problem.

And this particular problem is its own solution. It all comes down to you as a friend and a fellow human to help a friendship stay strong.

Every friendship is a two-way street, so I'm not saying you are the sole reason for a problematic friendship.

What I'm really saying is, you are a half of the whole. If you truly care about a friend, you will meet them halfway and try your best to treat them with respect and kindness, no matter what kind of mental illness might get in their way from time to time.

It takes two people to make a friendship, but it can take just one person to break it.

What I want you to take away from this article is, people dealing with a mental illness deserve the same respect and love you give to all of your friends, as well as consideration of their own unique needs and challenges.

Is this friendship any different than other friendships? No.

Everyone deserves to be treated like an individual. Everyone deserves to experience a true friendship.

Why not let that friendship be yours?