How to Help a Loved One with Mental Illness
Updated: Oct 25, 2019
We care deeply about our friends and family, and when we see them hurting, we hurt and want to help. When our loved ones suffer from mental illness, we can often feel at a loss on what to do and how to help. Here is a simple guide to help you navigate.
When to Be Concerned
First of all, if your loved one is in danger of harming themselves, call 911, take them to the nearest emergency room, or call the Suicide Prevention Line: 1-800-273-8255. They are in need of immediate assistance.
Otherwise, signs of concern are when you see a persistent symptom, behavior, or mood that lasts more than 2 weeks and affects their daily functioning and/or quality of life.
Some of the common symptoms of mental illness are:
Change in (decrease or increase) eating, sleep, or weight
Irritability, anger, hostility
Excessive worry or fear
Isolation or withdrawal from friends and normal activities
Trouble with reality (hallucinations, paranoia, delusions)
Let Them Know You’re Concerned
Share your concerns and observations with your loved one. Be sure to share in a way that will promote a dialogue and not shut them down or make them feel judged. Once you start a conversation, it is important to draw them out by really listening, trying to understand what they are experiencing, and empathizing with them. Do not try to correct their feelings or experience, but rather respond by saying, “that must be really difficult,” or “I can imagine how painful this must be for you.”
Here are some conversation starters:
I have noticed a shift over the past few weeks. Is everything okay? Can we talk about what is going on?
What you are saying really concerns me. Can we pull someone else in?
I can see you have been hurting for a while. Have you considered seeing a therapist? Do you think that would be helpful? What are your thoughts about it? Is there any way I could support you in this?
Build a Supportive Community
Both you and your loved one need a supportive community around you. We are meant to exist in a community, and we especially need our community when we are going through difficult times. They can be a source of strength, encouragement, and help shoulder the burden.
Some people to reach out to:
Therapist (a therapist can be helpful for both the person with mental illness and the one supporting, as caring for another can bring up a lot of feelings.)
Other Family Members
Support Group (there are support groups for both people suffering from mental illness and for the people supporting those with mental illness. These can be very helpful to know you are not alone, learn from one another’s experiences and have others around you that understand what you are going through.)
Be a Friend
One of the most important things you can do is just be there. Be present and be consistent.
Continue to reach out. Invite them to activities. Text, email, and call them. Continue to let them know you are there and thinking about them. They may respond or they may not, but keep being consistent regardless.
Serve them. Depending on their level of functioning, they may need help with meals, cleaning, laundry, errands etc. If they are looking for a therapist, it can be helpful to have someone there while they call and make appointments. And if they have children, offer to help with childcare, especially so they can make any therapy or doctor’s appointments.
Offer to just come over and go for a walk, play cards, watch a TV show, sit outside etc. Being in big crowds, loud or busy spaces may be too overwhelming, so keeping things simple.
Have Realistic Expectations
You cannot change or fix someone with mental illness. For that matter, we can’t change or fix anyone. But often when we see someone hurting we want to alleviate their pain and try to fix it. However, when we take this approach, we get burned out, frustrated, and can feel hopeless. Then we begin to loose our ability to be empathetic.
We need to remember it’s not about them “trying harder” or just “changing their mindset” or “sucking it up.” Sometimes it can be easy to minimize a persons experience because the suffering isn’t “visible” to us the way a broken leg is.
Don’t take their behavior personally. Think about if someone just broke their leg and you try to move them, but you moved them in the wrong way and caused excruciating pain. They would probably yell at you. However, we generally wouldn’t take this personally because we would understand this is the pain talking. It is similar with mental illness; sometimes it is the illness talking.
Be mindful that recovery is a process, usually a long process, and there are setbacks along the way. It is important to pace yourself and take things one day, or one moment at a time. You will need to take of yourself so you can take care of your loved one.
Continue to remind yourself that when someone has mental illness you can’t change them or take it away. But what you can do is love them and serve them. Often, it may seem like your actions aren’t enough or aren’t having an effect, but they are, and are often someone’s lifeline.
Here are Some Helpful Resources
“Defying Mental Illness: Finding Recovery with Community Resources and Family Support” by Paul Komarek
“I Am Not Sick. I Don’t Need Help” by Dr. Xavier Amador
“The Burden of Sympathy: How Families Cope With Mental Illness” by David A. Karp
"The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers," by Barry Jacobs, Psy.D