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3 Reasons It’s Hard to Make Friends Outside Mental Health Treatment

If you have a good handful of friends who you’ve met through mental health circumstances — whether in hospital, online groups, or in the community — you’ll likely know how great it is to have a swarming of people who understand you. People who get what it’s like to be in your shoes, especially if you feel you’ve “fallen behind” in life due to lots of time in and out of therapy or just trying to tumble through each day.

That’s me, anyway. However, I have been doing a lot of reflecting lately and I realize I actually have no friendships I have made outside of mental health since school. And that’s over a decade ago. Even the friends I did have then, I get scared to reconnect with because of having so much time “off” real life — in therapy or the hospital. You feel like you’ve forgotten the language.

Here’s a list of reasons I’ve come to realize why it’s so hard, and what to do about it:

1. Their life is miles ahead of yours.

Or so it seems.

It’s actually not — because life is not a race. Life is an experience of living and moving through age. Whether they’re married, have kids, or have a well-established career, it doesn’t mean their life is any more valuable than yours; people live their lives at different paces. Some may start theirs by having lots of children and marrying, and then decide to focus on their career.

Your experience with mental health may mean you take more time out to study, or discover a new career path. Your experience is immensely valuable and you’ll always be able to help at least one person in your life moving forward. Lots of people go on to study mental health nursing, psychology, or so on. Personally, I’ve gone from wanting to be an artist to a mental health social worker, because I know I’ll be able to apply so much of what I valued in a social worker during my own personal experiences.

Remember, no one’s life is “ahead.” All life is as it is and we have to radically accept where we are.

2. You’re scared of being judged.

This one is a biggie. I’m sure there are lots of people who take time off work and still don’t declare mental health to be a reason. For me though, I get scared about the stigma around labels, and also because mental health has become so open over recent years, I worry people will think I’m over-milking it, or using the “mental health card” when I talk about myself. Not that I’d want to completely take up a conversation about mental health, but when people ask about your life, there is a lot of shame for me about how long I’ve been battling my problems.

It’s easy to overthink this. Talking about your mental health doesn’t have to turn into a world debate, and you’re more likely to simply slip it in and talk about a variety of other things. The right people, the people who matter, won’t judge you a bit. In fact, others can feel empowered to talk about their own struggles if you make that first move.

3. You are anxious about talking to people who haven’t had similar experiences.

This is me, big time. So, now that it’s been a good few years through mental health struggles, I eventually built up the courage — especially through a therapeutic community — to talk and be exposed to a wide range of people. But all with mental health issues. At least, that’s what I tell myself. What I don’t often give myself credit for are the relationships I have built with workers in mental health — nursing assistants and other staff, who I have spoken about lots of “normal” stuff with and have been able to build a rapport.

I think it’s then having the confidence to use that skill with new people. I brought up this issue in the therapeutic community, which is my current treatment, and lots of people struggled with the same thing. The main bit of advice from this was to focus on hobbies and try make friends that way. For example, starting a singing group, taking up an instrument — either new or one you’ve put away for a while — start a sports group, park run for example, football, dancing. Investing in a hobby is a great way of making friends because you already have something in common with the people around you.

That last point has to be the most powerful. Not only can you make new connections, but having a hobby can really enhance your quality of life and give you an arena to breathe outside of focus on mental health. This has really got me thinking. I’m creative, so I’d like to join a drawing or writing group, and also meet up with a couple of connections I made from school, but haven’t socialized with for a long time.

I really do hope this little post is helpful to at least one person.

Getty image by Viktor_Gladkov

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