It is all too easy to feel alone when we live with a mental illness. Judgemental thoughts can attack and undermine our confidence. Painful emotions can rob us of enjoyment and pleasure from conversations and activities. We can start to believe that we have no social skills to make new friends, or, that we have nothing of importance to offer to the people around us. Unfortunately, it is very common for us to believe all these thoughts and to stop talking with our friends, lose contact, and, ultimately, worsen our chances in recovery.
We have plenty of evidence to show that social connection is a powerful tool in the recovery from mental illness. So here are four steps to make new friends and create a social life:
Step 1: Find people who could potentially be friends
Develop Better Relationships with Current Connections
While we might not feel as though we have friends, we often do have contacts and acquaintances in our life that have the potential for friendship. Many people find it easier to transform existing connections into friendships than make new friendships from scratch.
Here are some ideas of people who may be a good option to contact and create friendships with:
Meet New People through Activities, Events, Classes, etc.
Sometimes getting more out of current contacts doesn't work or isn't suitable. In these cases, we need to meet entirely new people. The biggest and common barriers to this approach is usually access (i.e., where do I meet people?).
Here are some ideas to help with access:
Step 2: Prepare for social interactions (Be Friend Ready!)
Not sure how to start a conversation? Current events are usually a good topic to raise if the usual "How was your weekend?" question doesn't seem to work. In order to know what to talk about, we often recommend picking up the popular newspaper in your area and take note of the headlines and current events. We use this information when talking with our potential friends when the usual questions fail, so some lines might be: "So, what do you think about the recent protests?", "I read about that new movie in the paper, have you seen it or heard about it?", etc. That said, only talk about current events that actually interest you! We want to find people who share some similar interests.
If you really struggle with this point, invest in some counselling to improve your skills, manage your anxiety, and learn other interpersonal skills that may be interrupting your attempts.
Step 3: Invite your potential friends to do something with you
Instead, invite them to do something with you. This is the most important step in our experience. At the end of the day, you can meet lots of different people, they could even think you are an awesome person, but if you don't take the initiative to ask them to do something in the future it is unlikely that you'll form friendships. Those people will simply continue to be that person in the cafe who is nice to talk to while waiting for coffee. So, invite them to something outside of the situation that you met them (e.g., if it was a club acquaintance, invite them to something else that isn't club related). It is normal to feel hesitant to invite people out, it can feel scary, pushy, rushed, and awkward. While there is a risk of being rejected, you'll find yourself getting used to it pretty quickly - the more you do it the easier it will become.
If you're not sure how to ask someone to do something with you, ask for contact details, plan a event, or other issues, you can brain storm with family or get help in counselling.
Step 4: Stay in touch, keep hanging out, and continue seeking new friends
A: Well, I first heard about Meetup a year ago. A guy came up to me while I was walking through the city and gave me his meetup event card. He asked me to come, but I didn't end up going to it. I only decided to go to a Meetup event when I was facing the prospect of being alone on New Years Eve. I went online to see if there were any events being held on New Years Eve and, as it turned out, there was one that seemed okay to me which I decided to attend.
Q: How did you get yourself to attend the event despite your anxiety?
A: I didn't want to be alone any more. As a result of my illness, I'd lost contact with my friendship groups and I just didn't have a social life. I decided that I'd had enough of feeling lonely. It was the right time in my life to start socialising again and to make friends. So, that was the motivation that got me to the meetup event. The prospect of being alone for another year outweighed my anxiety about meeting new people or going to a party by myself.
Q: How was your first Meetup event?
A: There was a lot of people at my first event and I was extremely nervous. That said, I was also excited by the prospect of making new friends and having a night out, but I was more nervous than excited. It was a weird and uncomfortable mix. I was feeling very afraid when I got there, so I started to talk to the people around me to overcome the fear. It was a liberating choice because I realised that many of us were in the same boat. As I talked to people, I learnt that they also wanted to make friends. We were all being nice to each other and were willing to be outgoing. It made it much easier to connect and make friends because we were all in the same boat.
Q: What have you learnt from going to Meetup events?
A: I learnt that making friends and getting to know people isn't as difficult as I had imagined! After I went to a couple of meetup events, my confidence gradually improved and I noticed that I was able to communicate with people much better than I had thought. I still go to Meetup events so that I can meet new people and make new friends. I'm now living a much better life because I'm active and I feel connected to a group of friends. I now have an active social life outside of Meetup and continue to go to events to make new friendships.