Supporting Someone with a Mental Health Concern
The support of family and friends is critical to help someone cope with mental illness. Here are some ways to help a friend or relative cope with mental illness:
It takes courage to talk about emotional problems or mental health concerns. Sometimes the best thing a friend or family member can do is lend an ear. Without thinking about what you want to say next and without outside distractions (T.V., cell phones, etc.), focus on what the other person is saying. Ask for clarification if you don’t understand something. Don’t offer “quick fixes” or advice unless asked to do so.
Help the person find support
Offer phone numbers and names of organizations that can help them find their way to better health. Offer to make calls and set up appointments, and drive them to appointments if they want and if you are able. But always ask them first.
Don’t judge or blame
Whether illness is caused by genetics, trauma, or chemical imbalance, it’s not the individual’s fault. Reiterate that out loud to the person you are supporting.
Help the person remain hopeful
Point out that he or she will get better with treatment, time, and support.
Realize your loved one has a medical condition, but he or she is much more than the disease.
Don’t expect miracles. Getting well takes time and, often, different treatments. Mental illness is not something you can “snap out of,” and there may also be periods of improved mental health followed by periods of more pronounced mental illness.
Pay special attention to what that person needs
If someone is experiencing difficulty, ask what they need and listen to the answers. Determine and communicate how you are able to help.
Recognize the positive steps, no matter how small. Perhaps a person had been too depressed to get out of bed. A shower and a walk to the corner store is an improvement. Perhaps holding down a job has been difficult. Making it through a three-day workweek could also be a positive milestone.
Discourage using illness as a crutch
Encourage individuals with mental illness to take responsibility for what they can control in their lives, such as their treatment plan.
If you suspect a person is suicidal:
- Ask directly if the person is thinking about suicide.
- Talk openly about suicide – it does not increase the risk. In fact, it can bring relief to someone who has been afraid to confide their suicidal thoughts.
- Talk to the person in a non-judgmental way and listen to them without becoming upset. Let the person know you care and want to help.
- Believe what the person says and take all threats seriously.
- Look into community resources (such as crisis lines and counseling services) that you can suggest to the person.
- Never keep someone’s suicidal feelings a secret. Tell someone who can help.
- Take action if you feel someone is at immediate risk. If necessary, make contact with the police, emergency services, or a hospital in order to ensure the person’s safety.
Take care of yourself
It can be emotionally exhausting to care for a mentally ill friend or family member. Spend time nurturing your own life and seek support or advice if needed.