Campus Life mens et tenebrae

A friend in need

How to best support fellow students in hard times

Over the past month, I’ve written about mental health issues from the perspective of the afflicted. But for every individual who struggles with these issues, there are many more who are affected by association. Friends, partners, and family members end up shouldering some of the burden.

Even if you don’t think you know anyone with a diagnosable problem, we’ve all supported friends when they’re stressed, frustrated, lonely, or just having a bad day. Especially if you frequently find yourself in a supportive position, there are some important factors you should consider for your own well-being and that of your friends.

This is a topic near and dear to me because I’ve had depression for as long as I can remember. I wasn’t diagnosed until the age of 14, and since then I’ve spent a fair amount of energy trying to figure out the best way to manage my depression, both for myself and for those who are close to me. Besides that, several of my good friends have dealt with depression, anxiety, or other issues, so I know what it’s like from the supporting side. These experiences have taught me three guidelines when relating to people with mental health issues.

First of all, if you come across a friend who is having a low moment, ask them what they want from you. It might not be what you expect. Most people’s reaction to an upset friend is to be concerned, sit down with them, and try to listen or help them reason through their problem. When people do that with me, though, it doesn’t make me feel better. As a longtime depressive, I have a well-established fear of being a negative force in other people’s lives. I hate the idea that my depression is bringing anyone else down, so it’s often not the best approach if a friend decides that they’ll sit next to me all night while I can’t sleep or something else similarly heroic.

So, what should my friends do to support me? Oddly enough, it’s best for me when they act like nothing is wrong. This may be counterintuitive for most people. I only realized this myself because of two particular friends. If I’m having a rough day and I see them, they chat with me like everything is completely normal. I could be puffy-faced from crying, or unable to sleep at five in the morning, and these two people would just talk to me about their pet bird or OKCupid dates or whatever else we normally discuss. They treat me as if my depression doesn’t change our friendship.

Some people want the opposite though — they might need to feel like their friends are taking their problem seriously. Other people have no idea what they need when they’re having a bad day. If that’s the case, the best you can do is encourage them to give it some thought. The moral of this story is that what your upset friend wants is not necessarily what you would expect, so be sure to actually listen. Everyone is different.

My second piece of advice is less about how you should act towards your friends and more about how you should act towards yourself. Although I just told a story about people who make me feel better, they can only alleviate my depression on a very short-term basis. Neither of them have the ability to cure it.

It’s incredibly important to understand your limitations as a supportive friend. When you see someone in pain, you want to do whatever you can because they’re your best friend, or your boyfriend, or your girlfriend, or whatever — but it’s pretty likely there’s nothing you can do, and trying too hard incurs a serious cost. It’s very common to go into hero mode and sink your own ship trying to keep them afloat. I’m trying to save you a lot of time, energy, and grief when I say that you should avoid burning yourself out. It ruins relationships. Be a good friend, see if there’s anything you can do for them, but accept the fact that you can’t fix them.

Considering your own well-being is especially important when you’re in a relationship. Dating means being exposed to your partner’s emotional life, and if that emotional life is completely messed up, it puts you in a pretty unhealthy position. Getting caught in their pain and deciding that you can fix it usually ends up being destructive to the relationship.

My third piece of advice might be the most important. If someone is at risk of hurting themselves, get help immediately. Determining whether a friend is at risk is not always black and white, though, and it’s a pretty difficult position to be in. If you’re not sure what to do, consult someone responsible and trustworthy, like a GRT or housemaster. The well-being of you and your friends has to be the top priority.

Being a student at MIT is both fantastic and difficult. Having close friends is key to getting through the tough parts, provided you’re mindful of each other’s needs.