Can your friend be your therapist?
Below is a summary of a conversation I had with my brother about the role of friends in helping with difficult problems:
“OMG, you’re driving me mad!” We may say this to our friends, but the truth is they’re more likely to be keeping us sane.
Loneliness and isolation are the key factors in causing depression, and research shows that people with a strong circle of friends suffer less from mental health issues.
So, it’s clear that friends can help. But are they always the answer to coping with mental health challenges?
Well, it all depends on how serious the problem is, and how sensitive the person is. Some of us can take difficult emotional upsets in our stride, others need time and support to decompress and process the experience. The big question here is, if a friend asks you for support, how do you know when to say “I’m out of my depth here, you need to see a professional?”
Here are some tips in figuring out whether you’re in a position to continue helping your friend:
What’s your bandwidth like? If you end up repeatedly feeling exhausted after a session with your friend, perhaps you’re not resourced enough to play that role.
Is your friend recycling the same old problem every time, perhaps in a different guise? Either they’re refusing to learn and move on, or for some reason, you don’t have the necessary skills to get through to them. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just that some problems require specific solutions.
If your friend is getting highly distressed when talking about their issues and even perhaps having flashbacks then these are signs that the problems may be more serious than you thought. In situations like these, continuing to ‘help’ can actually cause more harm.
Do you find yourself getting drawn into your friend’s problem to the point where is becomes all-consuming? You may need to take a step back and reflect why this particular issue has become so important to you. People who become hyper-involved in another’s problems may have their judgement clouded by unresolved issues of their own.
Do you find yourself being the one who is always doing the listening and supporting? Friendship should be a two-way thing, so what happens when you need a friendly ear? It’s important to keep a strong boundary and let friends know when it’s your turn to be supported.
So, keep on supporting your friends, and make sure you’re looking after yourself too. And crucially, don’t be afraid to tell your friend that it’s time to seek professional help.