Helping a Loved One Cope with Mental Illness
Learn about what you can do to help a loved one cope with a mental illness.
It can be difficult to see a loved one struggle with symptoms of mental illness. It can also be hard to know how to best help and support a loved one.
Every individual is different, and situations vary greatly. Below are some ideas that might help you get started in approaching a loved one you’re concerned about.
Recognizing the Warning Signs
Signs can vary widely. Some examples include changes in sleep or appetite, withdrawal from social interactions, or problems functioning at school or work. See more on Warning Signs of Mental Illness. There may be other explanations for changes, such as general medical illness. Checking in with a medical professional can help sort out what changes are cause for concern. It’s important to address concerns early, as untreated symptoms of mental illness can worsen with time.
Starting the Conversation
One of the hardest-- but most important--steps may be starting a conversation with the person you’re concerned about. You don’t have to be an expert. You don’t need to have all the answers. Start by expressing your concern, as well as your readiness to listen and be there for the person. Don't be afraid to talk about it. Reassure them that you care about them and are there for them. Use "I" statements. For example, try "I am worried about you…," or "I’d like you to consider talking to a counselor…." Avoid statements like "You are…." or “You need to," or "You should…."
Try to show patience and caring. Avoid being judgmental about their expressed thoughts and actions. Listen.
Try encouraging them to talk with a mental health care practitioner or with their primary care practitioner — wherever they might be most willing to start. For some people, it may be helpful to compare the situation to a general medical condition, like diabetes or high blood pressure. If they were having problems with those types of conditions, wouldn’t they seek medical care?
Remind them that seeking help is a sign of strength.
Educating Yourself about Mental Health Conditions
Seek out opportunities to educate yourself. The more you know, the more you can offer informed suggestions to a loved one.
Carefully consider the sources of your information, especially when searching online. As with any topic, the quality of information available online varies a great deal.
Helping Address Barriers
Try to anticipate and help address any potential barriers to a person’s seeking help. For example, find out about local resources are available in the person’s immediate community. (See a helpful resource list to the right.) Consider researching local practices and specific information such as hours, locations, and insurance-related requirements. Help brainstorm about possible solutions to barriers involving transportation, childcare, communicating with an employer, etc.
Seeking Support for Yourself
While you're focusing on helping a loved one, it's important to take care of yourself – physically and emotionally. Reach out for help for yourself if you need it. Recognize and acknowledge the limits of what you can give.
Blogger Victoria Maxwell writes: "When my mother was ill with the swings of severe depression, mania, and anxiety, I was worried as well as angry. I needed someone outside the family to freely discuss my frustrations and hurt without the fear of upsetting her. A qualified therapist offers clarity, objectivity, solutions not previously seen and a place to safely deal with the emotions rising from such difficult circumstances."
Support groups for family members, such as those available through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Mental Health America (MHA) can be valuable sources of information and mutual support. NAMI offers both a training program for families (“Family-to-Family”) and ongoing peer-led support groups for family members.
NAMI Family-to-Family is a free, 12-session educational program for family and friends of people living with mental illness. It is an evidence-based program taught by NAMI-trained family members who have been there.
NAMI Family Support Group is a peer-led support group for family members, caregivers and loved ones of individuals living with mental illness. They are free and confidential.
Being There for the Long Run
Recovery from a mental health challenge is rarely a straightforward process. Typically, there are ups and downs, times of progress, and periods of setbacks. Be ready to provide support and encouragement to your loved one for the long run, not just during an immediate crisis. If your family member gives permission, you can work with professionals on their care team to support them and participate in treatment planning.
Even if you feel your support and actions are not making a difference, they are likely making a difference for your friend or family member. Your loved one may be hurting too much to express.
Isabel Norian, M.D.
Member, APA Council on Communications