The Power of Friendship
There’s a reason there are millions of songs written about friendship. Friends are vital to our wellbeing and are some of the most powerful bonds people have, no matter how old they are. But friendship is a broad term that can mean different things to different people. Your age, background, culture, lifestyle, and personality can all impact the way in which you recognize and experience friendship. Typically friendship is characterized by as:
- People you know and with whom you have mutual affection, exclusive of a romantic partner or family
- A sense of connection, companionship, support, and understanding
- Sharing of time, experiences, and/or confidences — either in person or online/digitally
- Give and take such that sharing is perceived to be a two-way street — even if not in every moment (e.g., if a friend is going through a breakup)
Healthy friendships are vital and have a positive impact on many areas of your health, including your mental health.
The Benefits of Friendship
Connecting with other people is one of the very earliest of human impulses. One of the very first things babies do is bond with a caregiver. Moreover, research shows that people who identify lifetime friendships are better adjusted than their friendless peers. In other words, having healthy friends helps to buffer against negative mental health outcomes such as suicide or self-harm. Friendships improve our confidence and self-worth; help us cope with serious life events or trauma like break-ups, illness, or losing a job; boost our feeling of belonging; and encourage us to avoid unhealthy behaviors or change them when it comes to food, exercise, drinking or drug use.
Toxic or Unhealthy Friendships
While close friendships often serve positive, protective, and healthy functions, relationships high in antagonism, conflict, and inequality can trigger symptoms of psychological distress. We hear the term “toxic” often these days, but what does this actually mean? Examples of toxic friendships include:
- Encouraging/enabling harmful behavior like substance misuse
- Having an unbalanced relationship or a relationship that’s a one-way street (all give, no take or all take and no give)
- Continuing to think and repeatedly talk about shared worries, wounds, or challenges, with no solution or alleviation (often called “co-rumination”)
Tips for Supporting Friends with their Mental Health
While it’s common for us to assume that supporting mental health is a job for a mental health professional, the reality is that we all play potent roles in supporting (or in toxic or unhealthy relationships, thwarting) the mental health and wellbeing of people we know. Our friends are healthier because they know we and others care about them, and trust that we’re there to listen, play, laugh, and cry with them. And, we benefit in these ways from their friendship, as well.
The benefits of friendship come from small but meaningful acts of connection and comfort — like checking in on someone when you know things are hard, celebrating a success or reaching out just because you like hearing each other’s voice and/or spending time together. These small acts go a long way in demonstrating that we’re there for our friends and they for us. And, for a friend who’s struggling or who doesn’t have many friends or loved ones in their lives, such small acts can make an enormous difference in their sense of wellbeing. Here are some tips to help you be a supportive friend:
- Being a friend often means just that — reaching out to say hi, share a story, laugh, make plans to do something together, or just to check in. These are the healthy things we do that boost our happiness and keep us connected to the people who mean so much in our lives. Even if it’s just sending a text to say hi, a little outreach can go a long way.
Share your own struggles
- If you’re comfortable sharing and have struggled with emotional ups and downs, consider sharing a bit about your own mental health challenges. Your friend might be nervous about opening up, so sharing your story can be a good way to show them you’re a safe person to share with.
Know when they need help
- Being there for a friend also means knowing when you might be getting in over your head. It’s important to be honest about your own limitations. If your friend is really struggling or if their challenges are persistent and not improving, suggest they reach out for professional support. And as always, if you’re worried about a friend and not sure how to help, you can text START to 741741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to chat with a trained counselor anytime.
Take care of yourself
- Just like we’re told to attend to our own oxygen masks before putting on a child’s, the same goes here. We need to remember that we can’t support our friends if we don’t take care of ourselves along the way. Take breaks, make sure your own needs are being met, and set boundaries when needed (i.e., be a friend to yourself).
For other ways to check in with a friend and open up a mental health conversation, visit seizetheawkward.org for helpful and supportive videos, GIFs, stickers and more.
Getting Support from your Friends
While we want to be there for our friends, sometimes we need them to be there for us, even when things are going well. Don’t forget to leverage your friends when you need them — that’s what friends are for!
Ask for Help
- Even friends who care can miss the signs that you’re struggling. Reach out to them and be honest about what you’re going through. They’ll likely appreciate that you trusted them enough to share. Friends can help provide perspective, problem-solve, or even just listen. Reaching out isn’t a burden, and in fact, it can serve to deepen your friendship. It also doesn’t make you weak — vulnerability is a strength.
- It’s also ok to reach out to more than one person. It can feel like a lot of pressure for a friend if they’re the only one, so don’t hesitate to open up to several people in your circle. Plus, they’ll likely have different advice and different ways of supporting you, so you can see what resonates the most.
Nourish your friendships
Healthy friendships play a vital role in our mental health and wellbeing, but not all friendships have the same benefits. Be sure your friendships are nourishing and not compromising to you. Lean on your friends when you need a little extra support by reaching out and be honest about what’s going on and how they might help. And check in with them as well to see how they’re doing and what you might be able to do to help. And as always, check out the JED mental health support center for more ways you can help a friend in need.