What constitutes a healthy friendship? A strong relationship typically consists of laughter, shared interests, and perhaps most importantly love and support. A good friend stands by their buddies in times of need and offers a much-needed hand to hold or a shoulder to cry on. Take that recipe for friendship and mix in a good dose of mental illness and the terms become hazy: at what point does that hand become cramped or that shoulder need to be stretched out?
When does love and support become a crutch that only temporarily fixes a much more permanent problem?
Mental illness is an increasingly common issue facing teens and young adults. Despite its prevalence in society, disorders ranging from anxiety and depression to anorexia and everything in between are still largely stigmatized; many young people struggling with these illnesses are reluctant to reach out for the professional help they so desperately need out of fear of repercussion.
As a result, many of these kids find solace in their friends, often swearing them to secrecy. This not only prevents the person dealing with the illness from getting real help; it also places a huge burden on the person offering their support. This can put many young people in a tough situation: do they risk their friendship by attempting to get their friend help, or do they stay silent and keep their friend's trust but risk their friend's well-being as well as their own?
This particular situation is more common than you might think. I had the opportunity to write about this subject in my ethics class last year—and I recently presented the topic in a panel of students at our school's Ethics Symposium. What was interesting—for lack of a better term—to me was the response I got from students and parents: that they had experienced it too.
It's so difficult to determine where supportive friendship ends and toxic relationships begin.
The basic argument I made in my paper is that there comes a time when "talking it out" with a friend is not going to help them any further. If you are not licensed professional, chances are you are not going to improve their situation. If they are in a really bad place mentally or a threat to themselves, the most loving thing you can do for them is to help them find further help.
I'm definitely not saying that you shouldn't be supportive: the hardest times in a person's life are when they need good friends the most. What I am saying is that keeping a friend's consistently self-deprecating comments, thoughts of self harm, and even suicidal ideations a secret is never the right choice.
Not only does this put your friend in danger, it can be emotionally taxing to you, too.
Basic psychology dictates that these types of relationships quickly descend into a phenomenon called "codependency": The basic idea of this behavior is that one person, the benefactor, continuously "rescues" a needy individual due to an exaggerated sense of responsibility for the other. This creates a vicious cycle in which the benefactor both enables the needy individual's destructive behavior and they themselves become trapped in a toxic relationship—a relationship in which they are used, abused, or taken advantage of.
When an individual struggling with mental illness swears a friend to secrecy regarding potentially life-threatening information, it is extremely difficult to find the strength to breach that sense of trust for the sake of safety. It becomes even more difficult to do if, for example, that individual threatens suicide if that trust is broken.
You could argue that keeping that secret kept that friend alive.
This line of reasoning is faulty for a few reasons. Informing a family member or person of authority of the risk a mentally ill person poses to him or herself allows that figure to take preemptive protective action. Moreover, if an individual is truly suicidal, keeping their severe mental illness a secret for them as their friend does not guarantee that they will never harm themselves, but it does guarantee that they will never get better.
There are so many things you can offer to truly help a friend who needs it: go with them to their therapy appointments if they're too afraid to walk in alone. Help them do the dishes/clean their room when they feel too drained to do it themselves. Spend time with them, but set boundaries.
When a person extends a helping hand to a friend in need, the general expectation is that the friend will eventually let go and stand up on their own. When they offer a shoulder to cry on, it does not mean that the friend can take up permanent residency there.
Helping does not and should not have to hurt.
If you or a loved one is experiencing some of the issues described above, there are a number of resources you can access:
Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Free online counselling: www.betterhelp.com
Or check out your school's health resources—chances are that they can help you.
You are not alone.