Friendship: A gift to those suffering from poor mental health

Yesterday I listened to a CBC interview with a Toronto psychiatrist who was being asked how strangers can be helpful in preventing suicides on the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission). Sometimes a kind, friendly word — a bit of small talk — can be the difference between someone jumping to their death on the subway tracks and saving a life.

There is solid evidence to show that depression increases for Canadian men and women after the age of 65. Plus there is an increased of risk of suicide for men in the final third of life. For those of us with family and friends experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts, it is important to encourage them to get medical help and counselling. But there is another gift we can offer those suffering from poor mental health: friendship. In fact, David Bieble and Harold Koenig assert that “healing…can only occur within the context of supportive relationships.” (New Light on Depression.)

University of Aberdeen Professor of Theology John Swinton looks to Jesus as the model for the kind of friendship that is needed. When we observe the friendships of Jesus the primary thing we notice is his ability to see the whole person, the person behind the sickness. The first thing he does after healing someone is to send them back to their family and their community. Jesus knows that true healing depends to a large degree on being in relationship with others. People who are hurting don’t just need doctors and counsellors. They also need friends who will listen to them.

While committed friendship is never a substitute for medication and psychotherapy treatments, it can greatly aid in the recovery process. Offering a kind word, sitting with someone through a difficult time,  listening to their concerns, and just being there for them is what friends do. Indeed, sharing a coffee and engaging in a bit of small talk, can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.

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