University life

Looking after yourself when looking out for a friend

21 Jun 2023, 15:41

Keeping in mind your own mind when helping a friend through mental health struggles is crucial for the both of you, so TARGETjobs has partnered with UK mental health charity – Student Minds – to give advice for approaching this.

Two friends having a conversation: Looking after yourself when looking out for a friend.

The 'Looking After a Mate' report found that supporters who gained help for their own mental health from a GP or university counselling felt that their support needs, as supporters, had been met.

An important part of supporting someone else is looking after yourself, in order to keep yourself well too. It will also improve your ability to support your friend as you will be more likely to approach their difficulties and behaviours from a calm and rational standpoint.

For many supporters of people struggling with their mental health, making their own well-being a priority can be viewed as something that’s ‘easier said than done’ – and that’s understandable. You may find that feelings such as worry, uncertainty, guilt or resentment can build up. A student surveyed for the 'Looking After a Mate' report by Student Minds, which looked into the experience of students looking after someone with mental health difficulties, said: ‘Sometimes it is difficult for me to maintain good personal mental health when supporting her, as it can trigger anxieties in myself about whether I am supporting well.’

It’s clear, then, that the role of a supporter is tough; you should try not to feel guilty or annoyed with yourself if you can’t be ‘switched on’ all the time or you’re unsure whether you’re giving the best support – we’re all human.

By taking stock of your own needs and actively ensuring that they are met, you should be able to protect your own mental well-being. Below are some ideas for how you might do this. For more on how to support a friend, take a look at the content by Student Minds and targetjobs on this subject.

Read, watch and listen your way through Student Minds' guide to student mental health and well-being by registering here – for a pathway that provides information about mental health and services, advice for looking after yourself and others and helpful insights into the experiences of recent graduates.

Set boundaries

One of the most important ways of making sure a relationship with someone you are supporting doesn’t become all-consuming is by setting clear boundaries that enable you to protect your happiness and well-being, while feeling respected.

There are many different potential boundaries you could put in place. If you’re living with your friend, this might mean laying out a few reasonable house rules – eg ‘everyone clears up after themselves in the kitchen’. If you find that you’re providing a lot of practical support (such as setting up appointments or cooking), you might decide what you can and can’t realistically do. Talking through boundaries in a thoughtful but clear way can help to set a standard for mutual trust and respect.

If relevant, you should also let your friend know that you won’t put up with them not being nice to you – perhaps by saying something like ‘I know it is the fault of your illness and not you but I’m not prepared to put up with this or this.’ If you feel your friend has become a physical threat to you or themselves at any point, call 999.

Take breaks

You may start to find that the role of supporter, when added to the other responsibilities in your life, can start to chip away at your day and leave you without time for the things you need or enjoy. As part of setting boundaries with your friend, you could ensure you have allocated time out for yourself.

While it is often best to be communicative when setting boundaries, you might decide (depending on your friend and their struggles) that this one is best kept to yourself – particularly if you think your friend might feel worried that they don’t have you to talk to during your time out. Rather than asking them not to contact you between certain times or on certain days, one approach might be making a mental note of a period in which you will either encourage them to speak to someone else (see the section below) or let them know that you are busy but will respond to their message later/tomorrow.

If you’re finding that the time spent supporting your friend is getting in the way of your university work, trying to set boundaries or encouraging other forms of support could help (see the sections above and below). However, if you’re still struggling, you may be able to record extenuating circumstances to help you manage. This might, for instance, allow you to get an extension on your deadlines so you don’t end up having to choose between sleeping and studying. Do speak to your university (perhaps an academic tutor or a support officer for your department) if this becomes the case for you.

Encourage other sources of support

If your friend has other people to turn to then you are more likely to get the chance to take a break and do your own thing. From your friend’s point of view, they may find that having more than one person to reach out to means that they feel safer – as it’s more likely that someone will be free when they need them – and that they don’t slip into worrying about being a ‘burden’ on anyone.

You could talk to your friend about who they are close with from their family or friendship groups and encourage them to keep up these relationships by, for example, asking ‘how’s so-and-so doing?’ or suggesting a group video call with some of their friends. Helping them to keep up other relationships could lead them to reach out to a few different people during the week.

Suggesting that your friend sees a GP about their mental health and then encouraging them to try any services that the GP recommends could make you confident that they are getting the professional help they need – rather than feeling that you are the only source of support. You might also spend time searching for local services with them. Joining your friend for a couple of initial appointments or helping them with making appointments might help if they are anxious or nervous.

And ensure you get the support you need

In the 'Looking After a Mate' report, it was found that supporters who gained help for their own mental health from a GP or university counselling service felt that their support needs, as supporters, had been met. Once again, this suggests that considering your own mental well-being and seeking out whatever you need to protect it can improve your experience of supporting.

As well as, or instead of, accessing services, you might call up a friend or family member for a chat, or talk to your academic tutor if you’re struggling with university work – mentioning your role as supporter if this is having an impact.

Inform yourself

Spending a bit of time reading up on the specific difficulties your friend is dealing with could help you to feel more confident about supporting them – and perhaps worry less that you’re doing the wrong thing. Student Minds has advice dedicated to support for eating disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, OCD, anxiety and psychosis. Mind’s A–Z of mental health also gives information on a range of topics – including specific conditions and forms of therapy.

But remember: you’re not the expert

Above all, it’s important to recognise that you’re not the expert on your friend’s mind – no one is. Mental health is, by nature, complex; it can take a lot of work by the person struggling and many different sources of support before they reach a position where they are managing their difficulties well. As best as you can, you should try to keep up a hopeful attitude, knowing that things can change for your friend in time, while remembering not to hold yourself accountable for whether or not that change happens.

targetjobs editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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