When my son Tim was younger, he didn’t have a lot of friends. From a very early age, he didn’t relate well to other kids. He didn’t want to play with them. It wasn’t a matter of not wanting to share toys; he had no interest in people his own age and size. Adults thought he was charming because he would sit on their laps, giggle, and even flirt with them, but a small child can’t form a relationship with the occasional adult visitor. We let Tim’s lack of friends slide, describing it as one of Tim’s idiosyncrasies; another piece of shrapnel inflicted by the war on his mental illness. Until he went into residential treatment. There he met other teens like him with the same challenges, and through living with them, going to school with them, and playing sports with them; he made friends, for really the first time in his life. And I firmly believe that his friends have played a huge role in his stability.
It’s strange that I thought that way, considering I reached out to peers and made new friends to help me deal with my emotions about raising a child with a mental health condition. I know that I could not have kept my sanity intact if it hadn’t been for the amazing friends I’ve made through The Balanced Mind Foundation, BringChange2Mind, NAMI and my blog. Why didn’t I realize that Tim needed – no, deserved – the same kind of support from peers? And I really didn’t understand the role that stigma – or fear of stigma – played in my rationalization around Tim’s lack of friends, and what that missing component meant to the struggle to achieve his stability. It was so much easier for me to isolate him from other kids to save him from, what, ridicule? Shame? Being singled out as different? Hindsight being 20/20, yes, probably all of those, but I also simply didn’t realize how great the role of friendship would be for him.
The impact of friendship in the treatment of persons with mental health conditions is studied and documented, but it’s often overlooked as an important part of recovery. SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration and the Ad Council have recently launched a new campaign to raise awareness of the importance of friendship in the treatment of mental health conditions. The campaign is appropriately named, “What a Difference a Friend Makes,” and is designed to educate the public on mental health conditions, reduce the stigma surrounding them, and reinforce the importance of supporting friends with these diagnoses. The site has education on different conditions, a forum where anyone – those diagnosed or with friends or family diagnosed – can chat anonymously, stories written by real people about their conditions, and information on where to find mental health resources in your local community. It’s not the most comprehensive or robust website about mental health, but it is a great start towards our government taking an active role to combat the stigma of mental health conditions.