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Helping a Loved One Cope with Mental Illness

It can be very difficult and heart-wrenching to see a loved one struggling with symptoms of mental illness. And often it can be hard to know how to best help and support your loved one.

Every individual is different and situations vary greatly. The person may have a specific diagnosis, or you may just have concerns about the way a person has been talking and behaving. You know your loved one and may have an understanding of what approach or support will be most helpful. However, below are a few tips and things to consider when you are trying to help a loved one.

Know the Warning Signs of Mental Health Problems

For example, withdrawal from social interaction, unusual problems functioning at school, work or social activities or dramatic changes in sleep and appetite are possible signs. See more on Warning Signs of Mental Illness. Someone exhibiting these signs or having these experiences does not necessarily mean the person has a mental health problem, the symptoms could also be related to other issues or problems. But following up with an evaluation from a medical professional could help address any problems and prevent more serious symptoms from developing.

Getting Started, Approaching the Issue

One of the hardest and most important steps may be just starting the conversation. You do not have to be an expert or to have the answers. Express your concern and willingness 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, use "I am worried about you…," "I would like you to consider talking with a counselor…." rather than "You are…." or "You should…."

Try to show patience and caring and try not to be judgmental of their thoughts and actions. Listen; don't disregard or challenge the person's feelings.

Encourage them to talk with a mental health care provider or with their primary care provider if that would be more comfortable for them. For some people, it may be helpful to compare the situation to a physical health concerns and how they would respond. For example, if there was a concern about diabetes or high blood pressure would they be likely to seek medical care?

Remind them that seeking help is a sign of strength.

Learn about Mental Health Conditions and Treatments

Educate yourself. The more you understand about conditions, symptoms, possible treatments and what to expect, the better you will be able to support your loved one.

However, carefully consider sources of information online. As with any topic, the quality of information available online varies a great deal. (See resource list at the right.)

Help Address Potential Barriers

Try to anticipate and help address any potential barriers to the person seeking help. For example, find out about local resources available to help. For example, make it easier for the individual by researching potential therapists, hours, locations and insurance related issues. If you think they might be barriers, address possible issues with transportation, childcare, strategies for communicating with an employer, etc.

Seek Support for Yourself

While you're focusing on helping your loved one, it's also 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 through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Mental Health America can be valuable sources of information and mutual support and understanding. 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 evidenced-based program taught by NAMI-trained family members who have been there. Find a NAMI Family-to-Family class near you here.

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. Find a NAMI Family Support Group near you here.

Expectations and Collaboration

It is important to have realistic expectations. Recovery is generally not a straight-forward process, there will be likely be improvements and setbacks along the way. With permission of your family member you can work with their treatment team to help provide support.

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. You loved one may be hurting and not clearly recognize what you're doing or may not be able to express appreciation. But knowing you are there for them can be important in helping their recovery.

If you feel your loved one is at risk of hurting themselves or others, contact the National Suicide Prevention Line 800-273-TALK (8255).

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