One in five people in the US have a mental illness, also known as a psychological disorder. Having a loved one with a mental illness is stressful, but family support can improve recovery. Acceptance, understanding, and self-care are crucial to support a loved one with a mental illness.
The most common sign of a new mental health concern is a notable change in behavior. If you have concerns, say something. This is not going to put ideas in someone’s mind, it simply opens the conversation. Start by saying that you care and noticed some things that concern you. Then you can ask what you can do to help.
Having intense emotions such as disbelief, confusion, guilt, anger, grief, or shame when a loved one is diagnosed with a mental illness is common. With time, these feelings can subside and acceptance occurs. Having an outlet for these feelings such as journaling, talking with a friend or clergy person, or therapy is useful. It is unlikely that the condition is due to anything you did or that there is anything you can do to “cure” it. Mental illnesses are due to a complex interaction of causes and do not have quick or easy cures.
Learning about the disorder, including symptoms, course, and treatment options can reduce uncertainty and provide ideas for how to help. See the Resources section for some reliable sources of information. Psychological disorders typically have a biological component; they are not a matter of weakness, a sign of failure, attempts at manipulation, or “in a person’s head.” Do not expect a loved one with a mental illness to think the way you do or be able to act on what seem like obvious solutions to you. The very nature of mental illness makes this extremely difficult. It also can be helpful to share what you have learned about the condition with other people in the loved one’s life.
Engaging in self-care is important because it can increase your ability to care for others. It also models these skills for your loved one. Self-care often involves helping the loved one engage in appropriate independence or accessing proper supports, which also improves recovery and quality of life for your loved one.
Being involved in your loved one’s treatment can be helpful. However, it is important to allow the loved one to be an active participant in their own care, especially if the person is an adult. If your loved one currently is not getting help, connecting the person to resources such as a medical or mental health provider can be helpful. Often it is helpful to seek a variety of treatment options with service providers working together.
Having a plan for what you can do or say, or prompt your loved one to do, in a mental health crisis can be helpful. This plan can be created with the loved one, perhaps with the assistance of a mental health professional. This is best done when the person feels safe and comfortable.
Daily tasks can become overwhelming when dealing with mental illness. Offering to help with cooking, cleaning, transportation, or other responsibilities can be useful. Often the most supportive thing you can do is simply listening without judging, correcting, or fixing. To avoid unintentionally saying something offensive, consider if you would make the same statement about a physical illness. For example, no one would tell someone with diabetes to thinking differently or that insulin is not necessary. So, it would not be appropriate to tell a person with major depressive disorder to think differently or not take an antidepressant. Treat people with a mental illness with respect, not defining them as their illness. Express your concern and support, but also your affection and hope.
If you believe a loved one is in danger of hurting themselves or someone else or is unable to care for themselves, contact a crisis center, take the person to the emergency department, or call 911. Other helpful resources include: