5 Things I’ve Learnt While Looking After A Friend With Mental Illness

B and I have been friends for over a decade. Back in school, we would work tirelessly on countless projects that benefited the local community. Our friendship worked on the basis of mutual trust, support, and appreciation for one another… and a lot of times, unspoken understanding.

He never exhibited any signs of mental health issues back then, not even after we graduated from junior college and hung out during our university days. We would have frequent swimming/makan excursions together with another friend, H. The three of us even spent Valentine’s Day together as singles.

Over time, as we all got busy with our lives, it occured to me that B had been missing in action. He had completely withdrawn socially by removing himself from platforms such as Facebook. His mobile number was also deliberately switched, and he was just… uncontactable for what seemed like eternity.

It was only about three years ago when a good friend, V, and I, decided to reach out to him through another school mate whom we thought might have his family’s contact details. I was surprised and grateful that although it might’ve seemed unexpected for him to hear from us, he opened himself up to V, H, and I almost immediately... We had no problems reconnecting, except… there was something about him that didn’t feel quite ‘right’.

B has been exhibiting signs of emotional dysregulation (i.e. angry outbursts, aggression, etc.) and poor impulse control (i.e. lewd text messages, etc.). He also appears to have been in a depressed mood for the last few years, and faces some challenges in the areas of his executive function and self-regulation skills.

In the past one year, more ‘guardian angels’ have stepped up with hopes of offering some form of support for him, including my best friend, J, a psychologist.

I can only say that B is incredibly fortunate, that there are many people around who care for and love him, and who would like to see him lead a happier and more fulfilling life… especially his immediate family.

V and I have also since tried our best to keep in touch with him as regularly as we can, and provide him with the only support we know we can confidently give — social and emotional.

Over the course of this journey with B (which by the way, I feel privileged to have embarked on, because of my friendship with him that goes way back), I have come to learn a few things about mental illnesses that I’d like to share.

  1. Stigma and discrimination

The stigma attached to mental health problems is still very much pervasive in Singapore society, so much so that people who suspect that they might have a mental health condition are unwilling to talk about it, much less acknowledge and seek treatment to help themselves.

We might not be aware of this, but chances are, we all know of someone who has been personally affected by a mental health disorder.

In 2014, a study found that nearly 1 in 5 Americans suffers from some kind of mental illness, enduring conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. In singapore, the figure stands at about 1 in 6 (as of 2014) — this means that patients would likely include our friends, family members, or colleagues. This brings me to my second point — the littlest gesture could make a difference.

2. A simple act of reaching out could make a difference

As they say, one of the most important factors in someone’s recovery is when he knows that he is being socially accepted, and understood.

Sometimes, all it takes is a small gesture by asking someone how he is, letting him know that you are still thinking about him, and that he can talk to you whenever he feels comfortable.

It’s not that difficult to lend a listening ear with an open-mind. I also find that spending time with the person lets him know that he is being cared for. Peer support could make a big difference in a sufferer’s recovery process.

3. It takes a village

Helping someone who’s going through a rough time is not only the responsibility of medical professionals nor his immediate family, communities and individuals can also play a part by showing more compassion and love towards those who are in need.

We can do it very simply by educating ourselves more on the related topic, by being non-judgemental, or by starting a conversation to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, instead of turning a blind eye.

Sometimes there is also only so much that a patient’s immediate family can do. I have, during this process, discovered that sometimes family members might be most delusional to what is going on. Their protectiveness over the sufferer might lead to denial of his condition, and it takes a lot of courage to be able to speak up respectfully to them.

4. Patience is key, and don’t blame yourself if things don’t turn out the way you expected

Interacting with B requires a lot of patience and understanding, especially whenever he doesn’t realise what he’s doing and acts in a way that is typically seen as disrespectful or impulsive.

His condition has affected his social relationships, as people whom he regarded as friends have begun distancing themselves, and ‘unfriend-ing’ him on Facebook. As sufferers might lack the insight that all these are happening due to a condition, they might spiral deeper into depressive episodes, and feel an overwhelming sense of frustration, isolation, and hopelessness.

This is why patience is a virtue, not only for the recovering, but for those who are committed to lend a hand through the recovery process.

It also doesn’t help to blame yourself when things don’t turn out as expected.

For example, I thought that over time, with steady encouragement, B would eventually be open to seek treatment. However, I realised that many sufferers go through a stage of denial and would refuse to admit that they have a problem. This can be frustrating for those who are dealing with the effects of the illness, but patience would go a long way.

I still trust that B would eventually be open to seeing a professional who could help him lead a more fulfilling life.

5. Self-care is critical

Some mental illnesses are caused by genetics, but what about those that could be prevented or managed earlier?

We’re all so caught up in the rat race that we sometimes don’t notice the signs of burnouts, social withdrawal, or changes in behaviour. We’re so overwhelmed by work that taking time out for lunch with friends or leaving work punctually to exercise makes us feel like we’re slacking.

We work late into the night, have problems sleeping, experience drastic negative effects of not setting boundaries at work, but deem those problems as ‘normal’, because “everyone else is going through the same thing anyway”.

The unfortunate thing is that I’ve had to undergo a pretty rough patch to realise how crucial it is to listen to my body, and to find time to take proper care of it. But so many people out there could start implementing simple self-care habits starting from now, without having to go through what I did.

More tips here. :)

To be there for someone who has a mental condition requires you to be strong, especially if you’re in it for the long-haul. It’s not possible to help someone else, if you can’t even help yourself. In the same way, you won’t be able to bring joy to someone… if you yourself aren’t happy.

This is why I feel that a little bit of love and attention for your own body/mind is actually a practice that we should instil as early as possible in our lives.

It’s going to be a long and tedious road to recovery for B (although technically, he is currently against seeking treatment)… but I have faith that he would be able to live a fuller life…

It’ll just take time.

For my friends out there reading this, here are some examples of signs and symptoms of mental illness, listed by Mayoclinic.

They might help you to help someone in need.

“Signs and symptoms of mental illness can vary, depending on the disorder, circumstances and other factors. Mental illness symptoms can affect emotions, thoughts and behaviors.”
  • Feeling sad or down
  • Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate
  • Excessive fears or worries, or extreme feelings of guilt
  • Extreme mood changes of highs and lows
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities
  • Significant tiredness, low energy or problems sleeping
  • Detachment from reality (delusions), paranoia or hallucinations
  • Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
  • Trouble understanding and relating to situations and to people
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Major changes in eating habits
  • Sex drive changes
  • Excessive anger, hostility or violence
  • Suicidal thinking
Sometimes symptoms of a mental health disorder appear as physical problems, such as stomach pain, back pain, headache, or other unexplained aches and pains.