Long term health conditions


Friends are really important to young people regardless of health. Young people don't want their friends or peers to treat them differently just because they have a medical condition. They want their friends to acknowledge their condition, understand and be supportive but most importantly the ability to look past their condition to the individual themselves. Here young people talk about how they felt about telling other people about their condition and how their friends reacted and behaved towards them.

In general the young people interviewed said that their friends were very supportive and even protective. One young woman with arthritis said that if she and her friends are in the pub and things get 'a bit rowdy' her friends move her aside to make sure she was OK. We were also told about friends who were happy to come round to watch a video instead of going out, and some who made hospital visits, reminded people about their medication and even told them off if they were doing things they shouldn't. 

Some of those diagnosed as teenagers said that they have lost friends following the onset of their medical condition. Sometimes friends didn't understand the symptoms of their condition which could lead to misunderstandings and fallings out. A girl with ME/CFS said that she was so exhausted that she couldn't even lift a phone to her ear to talk to friends. However as she looked OK friends were not always very sympathetic. One girl diagnosed with epilepsy said that it was hard to make friends because her bad memory meant that she couldn't remember conversations she'd had with other people and tended to repeat herself. Sometimes friends didn't know what to do to help and 'freaked out'. 

Some young people had to have long stays in hospital or lengthy periods of time when they were ill at home. This could mean that they lost contact with school or university friends. When they returned to school or college after a long stay away they might find themselves in other classes with a whole new group of people. 

Some young people have faced difficult experiences when their peers or acquaintances made rude comments about their appearance or thought it was funny to make jokes about their condition. These experiences can be very distressing at any age but particularly for young people. One woman said that as a child she used to cry after hearing comments from children in her school. A young woman remembered that when she was a teenager she reacted angrily to someone who thought it was funny to make a joke about her epilepsy.

Telling others

Young people don't necessarily want to discuss their medical condition with friends and classmates - often because they don't want to make a big deal of it or be seen as boring. A young man with a heart condition didn't want to talk about his illness because he found it too upsetting. Many young people said that they only tend to discuss their condition with close friends who know everything about them anyway. If they began to feel unwell when in general company they might give a brief explanation but avoid going into great detail. Some conditions are more widely known about than others. For example young people with asthma thought that most other people have a general idea about what to do if they were to need any help.

Some young people said they usually avoided talking about their medical condition when they met someone new. They really appreciated friends who don't introduce them in terms of their condition e.g. 'this is Mary and she has arthritis'. A young woman with CF said that she actually dropped friends if she felt they were being patronising by always asking how she was. One young man said that talking about your illness limits the conversation and he would like to think that there are other more interesting things about him.

For those who were diagnosed in childhood and brought up in small communities 'telling' has never been a big issue because everyone they knew has always known about their condition. One young man diagnosed with arthritis at the age of ten said that he felt different from his friends and peers but no one treated him differently and all his friends rallied around him. 

Several young people thought it was important to explain to friends and peers everything there was to know about their condition and liked helping educate them. They see it as an advantage because it provides them with extra support if and when they need it. They also made the point that people need to know otherwise they wouldn't know what to do with you if you feel ill. For example young people with type 1 diabetes said their glucose level might go up or down without much warning and they might need their friends to know what to do. A young woman with chronic pain, however, said that she prefers not to tell many people about her problems and how she manages them. She said that most people ask out of politeness but very few are genuinely interested to know how she really feels.

Some young people who were diagnosed in their teens really wanted to talk to their friends about it. A young woman who was diagnosed with epilepsy at seventeen describes one of her friends as 'her rock' for giving her unconditional support and being willing to listen. Another however felt that some of her friends felt uncomfortable talking about her recently diagnosed type 1 diabetes. Some young people said that they only talk about their condition to others affected by the same thing, and who could provide the friendship, emotional support and understanding that they needed. (Also see 'Peer support and voluntary groups'.)

Last reviewed July 2017.
Last updated February 2012.


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