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Mental Illness: What a Difference a Friend Makes
 
Mental Illness: What a Difference a Friend Makes Mental health problems can affect anyone at any time. That's why everybody needs to understand how mental illnesses can affect individuals, families, and communities.
 

It's also why we all need to learn how we can support our friends who are living with a mental illness. Caring friends can make a real difference. Are you ready to be a real friend?

Anxiety disorders: beyond bad nerves

Everybody gets nervous sometimes—it's only natural. But people with anxiety disorders experience persistent, disturbing feelings that overwhelm them and disrupt their everyday lives. Anxiety disorders are surprisingly common; it's likely that somebody you know is living with one.

So, what can you do about it? Get familiar with the different manifestations of anxiety disorder, and then teach your friends. Help to take away the stigma associated with mental illness by accepting and reaching out to people with anxiety disorders. Above all, understand that most people with mental illnesses are dealing with a conquerable challenge—and your support can help.

Depression: beyond the blues

Everybody gets the blues sometimes—but depression is very different from the blues. About 18.8 million Americans experience depressive disorders that affect how they sleep, eat, feel about themselves, and live their lives. Depression has physical and emotional symptoms and cannot be wished away; people with depression can't just "pull themselves together." There are different types of depressive disorder, each with its own symptoms and treatment options. The good news? Depression can be treated, and people can recover.

Bipolar disorder: beyond ups and downs

We've all experienced the ups and downs we call mood swings, but bipolar disorder is a mental illness that's much more serious. Extreme changes in mood, from the lows of depression to the highs of mania, characterize this debilitating illness. During the manic phase, a person may exhibit risky behaviors, distractibility, feelings of increased self-importance, irritability, and a reduced need for sleep. In the depressive phase, extreme sadness, lack of energy, and feelings of hopelessness make it difficult for a person to go about the business of daily life. Medication and therapy can help people living with bipolar disorder manage their illness, as can the understanding and support of friends.

Eating disorders: beyond a few pounds

Eating disorders, which usually affect young women, are characterized by a distorted body image—the person believes she is overweight even when she isn't. This belief leads to severe food restriction (anorexia nervosa) or a cycle of bingeing and purging (bulimia nervosa). Another hallmark of an eating disorder is denial—the person claims that he or she is not engaging in these behaviors or denies that there is anything wrong with them. If you know somebody with an eating disorder, or if you suspect a friend has one, offer your support and urge your friend to get help as soon as possible. Eating disorders can be very dangerous, but they do respond well to appropriate treatment. Remember, too, that people with eating disorders cannot help engaging in disordered behavior; these illnesses are not by choice. Reach out to your friends with eating disorders—your support can help them to recover.

Schizophrenia

Although schizophrenia affects more than 2 million Americans every year, it is a mystery to most people. Many of us have outdated notions about this disease, making it hard to understand the facts and fueling an ongoing stigma. It's equally common in men as in women, but men usually exhibit symptoms earlier—in their late teens or early twenties as opposed to their twenties or early thirties for women. One of the first signs is often a psychotic episode, in which the person hears voices or believes others are threatening him. These fragmented, bizarre thoughts are called delusions, and they often go hand in hand with hallucinations and disorganized behavior. These symptoms are frightening to the person with schizophrenia and to his or her friends. Medication, rehabilitation, and various forms of therapy can help, so if your friend has schizophrenia, offer your reassurance, support, and help during the treatment process.

Getting better all the time

One of the most important things to remember about mental illness is this: people can and do recover. If you have a friend with mental illness, or if you have a mental illness yourself, take a deep breath and remember that recovery is possible. Reach out to those around you with compassion, empathy, and understanding. Then, educate yourself about treatment and support options and get the kind of help you or your friend needs.

Here are more things to keep in mind: mental illness can affect anybody regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age, or background. You probably know somebody with mental illness. And mental illnesses are not caused by poor decisions or bad habits. They affect a person's physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing, much like heart disease or diabetes. The stigma associated with mental illness is one of the biggest barriers to recovery. If we want to be a truly healthy society, we need to break the stigma and treat mental illness like any other medical condition. It starts with you.

People with mental illness can recover or manage their conditions and go on to lead happy, healthy, productive lives. They contribute to society and make the world a better place. People can often benefit from medication, rehabilitation, psychotherapy, group therapy, self-help, or a combination of these. One of the most important factors in recovery is the understanding and acceptance of friends. The first steps are to educate yourself about mental illness and to be supportive toward a friend with mental illness.

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, http://whatadifference.samhsa.gov/learn.asp?nav=nav01_0&content=1_0_learn