I have lost all my friends because of my mental illness

Tell Me About It: ‘Should I try to reconnect with old friends, or just try and find new people’

PROBLEM: I am a woman in my 20s and after many months of being mentally unwell, I was diagnosed with a mental illness last year. I have lost all my friends because of this. Some I lost before I was diagnosed and that was probably because of my behaviour, others I lost after getting a diagnosis, and then I had to distance myself from the last group of friends I had as they partied too much which isn’t good for my recovery. I recently started a new job, but I am working remotely.

I feel really lonely and isolated. I would love to know how I can find friends again, possibly even reconnect with the friends I lost prior to my diagnosis – but they don’t know I have a mental illness as I’ve kept it quite private.

How should I approach this, or should I just try and find new friends?

ADVICE: You need to do both things, link back in with past friends and also work at creating new connections. As a young person in your 20s, you should have lots of friends and a good social life and this is something good to aim for. As you are now aware, many mental health problems surface for people before or around the early to mid-20s and this can have a devastating effect on their social wellbeing.

It will mean owning your difficult behaviour as related to the illness and not necessarily to you

When you were in the throes of your mental illness, you may not have been able to decipher what the effect was on those around you, but now you know and are in a position to do something about it. You, as a person, are still you and the friendships you made prior to your illness were based on a fundamental aspect of who you are and so it should be possible to rekindle these connections based on earlier experiences.

Of course, this will be hard as it will mean being less private about your illness and owning your difficult behaviour as related to the illness and not necessarily to you. If you do take the trouble of contacting your old friends, it is because you think they are worth the risk of rejection and so demonstrates the high esteem in which you hold them. All friendship (other than acquaintance) requires vulnerability if it is to deepen and last and this is your chance to find out if these old friends can be put into the lifelong category. You are to be applauded for understanding that you cannot (at this time) be around groups who are partying a lot and it says a lot about your resilience and courage.

There continues to be a stigma around mental illness, and this will not be broken until there is more talking and breaking down of the misconceptions around it. Difficult as it is for you, there is an opportunity for you now to challenge this stigma by speaking to your friends until they understand fully what happened and how you are managing it.

Shame is often associated with mental illness so we need to confront shame by bringing it into the open and deconstructing it until we discover the truth – that it is not a personal defect but something we have been subject to. As you practice the courage to speak to your old friends, and as you refuse to hold the bitterness of shame deep within you, you will find that you will become more open and confident in the person you are. Then it will be easier to make new friendships, without fear of being found out as someone who has something to hide. A suggestion would be to join groups of people who are naturally health seeking, eg, a running group or yoga class. This means you will not be under too much pressure to go partying, plus you will find that their focus is on the activity rather than on personal history.

As you have been through so much and have travelled the road to recovery, it might be an idea to volunteer with a helpline or service that supports people with mental health difficulties. You would have a lot to offer in terms of genuine hope but also you might find it good to be around other volunteers who have a clear understanding and support for those who find themselves in difficulty.

We do not need a huge number of close friends, but we do need a handful that we can trust, rely on and who will stand by us no matter what happens. These friendships take time, effort and commitment to create and each step towards this requires some opening up and risk-taking.

You can’t always know from the beginning how a friendship will develop, so you have to start by choosing people to be with who are interesting and whose company you enjoy. With time, you will discover the few friendships that are worth the long haul but right now the place to start is by linking in with past friends and joining one or two activities that you might like.