12 Ways to Support a Loved One with a Mental Illness

In any given year, one in five Canadians experiences a mental health or addiction problem. There is no denying the effects this can have on loved ones.

Research released by Statistics Canada reveals that in 2012, approximately 11 million Canadians aged 15 and older had at least one immediate or extended family member with a mental health problem, with more than one-third of them reporting their lives had been affected by that family member’s struggle with mental health. Of those, 71 percent said they provided care to the family member.

Though family members may be well-meaning in their efforts to help their loved ones, things can go awry if they are not well-equipped to deal with the mental health issue. That’s why we have decided to share this article, in the hopes that the principles shared here may help you as you seek to reach out to a loved one battling a mental illness.

1. Be There for Them

Everyone wants to know – in fact, needs to know – that he or she is noticed. This truth is even more apparent when someone is facing a number of crises. Instead of withdrawing from your loved one, this is the best time to show your love for them. Make a habit of making yourself known in their life.

Although it may at times seem as if your efforts are unacknowledged, keep pushing. Every day will be different. Whether it involves providing a shoulder for them to cry on, taking a walk with them or helping out with mundane tasks, your support means more than you know. The bottom line is: you can’t help someone if you’re not there.

2. Listen

When you have a loved one with a mental illness, it sometimes can be hard to know what to do. One of the best things you can offer is a listening ear. This simple, yet weighty, action is one of the most telling ways you can communicate that you value your relationship.

Allow your loved one the freedom to confide in you. Don’t try to rush or interrupt them, either. If you don’t have anything to say, it’s better to be silent than to issue trite statements or speak damaging words. It’s also not helpful to try to diagnose or prescribe unless you’re qualified to do so. Some useful things you can say in response are, “I’m here for you,” “I may not understand, but I care for you,” and “Don’t give up. You can get through this.”

3. Provide them with a Safe Space

More often than not, those with a mental illness may resort to isolating themselves from others. If you see your loved one doing this, please understand that it is not intentional. This kind of behaviour may be a result of their feeling as if there is nowhere they belong or, even more important, nowhere they can feel safe.

You can help change this by making an effort to surround them with people who love and care for them. Nicole Perryman, an adult, child and family therapist and clinical director of Aset Group Consulting and Counselling Services, mentions some ways that the church can promote this kind of setting. Make “sure they have lots of programs and activities” to participate in, says Perryman. “These things are huge in helping them get out of their isolation and connect with other people.”

4. Speak Words of Encouragement

Although the general response to mental illness has improved over the years, there is still a long way to go. The truth is that the stigma surrounding mental illness has been, and continues to be, one of the biggest barriers to people getting the help they need.

According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 25 percent of adults with mental health symptoms believe that people are caring and sympathetic to persons with mental illness. Regardless of what your understanding of mental illness may be, know that playing the blame game is extremely damaging and not recommended.

During this tough period in your loved one’s life, be intentional in your efforts to share words of compassion. You can encourage them in various forms, whether by sending them a quick text, making a phone call or giving them a handwritten card (see our store for some ideas.)

Also, work to combat any negative self-talk they engage in, which unfortunately is common for people fighting this battle. For example, if their language suggests they’ve lost hope, you can help rid them of this hopelessness by reminding them that they have much to live for.

5. Reassure Them That They’re Not a Burden

A common insecurity your loved one may have is thinking they are a burden to you. This may make them feel guilty and fearful that no one will ever truly love them. No matter what, you should never seek to reinforce these insecurities in any way. Constantly do your best to show them otherwise by demonstrating patience and perseverance, whether they are in the middle of an episode or not.

Be diligent in your efforts to reveal how meaningful they are to you. Yes, there are days when you may experience feelings of frustration, exhaustion and overwhelm. But the important thing is to keep striving to show them through your actions that you are in this together. Don’t give up.

6. Invite Them Along to No-Pressure Outings

When things appear to be dark and gloomy, a little sunshine can do a world of good. Numerous studies have shown that sunshine increases Vitamin D production, which can help alleviate depression. With this in mind, try inviting your loved one to tag along for some activity in nature (some options could be a nice walk or picnic). The key word here is “no pressure,” which means that the invitation process should be natural, as they need to be open to the experience. Never force them to do something they are not up for.

7. Recognize them as Individuals

No one likes to be compared to someone else. It’s even worse when you do this with someone dealing with a mental illness. According to Perryman, it is not helpful to tell your loved one a story of someone else who’s gone through something as a reason for why they should get better – in other words, saying, “They survived it. Why not you?” Everyone is different, which means that their experience with illness will be different.

It’s highly important you consider all the factors unique to them when discussing the nature of the illness and especially when it comes to potential treatment options. “When you’re talking about a black female whose parents are separated or disenfranchised or an immigrant or a refugee, there are just so many things that are stacked against them. So to say that I’m going to compare you to a white female, that’s not going to happen,” says Perryman. “It really devaluates their own healing, so being able to validate their own experience by saying, ‘I get it,’ ‘I’m sorry that you went through that’ or ‘Tell me what you need’ is more powerful than comparing.”

8. Remind Them They are Loved

“I love you” are three words that don’t get said enough. But when you have a loved one with a mental illness, you cannot just assume they will know how much you love them. It can be an especially vulnerable time for them, causing them to feel unloved and uncared for. That’s why it’s so crucial you clearly express your love for them over and over again. Never tire of making this known. What’s even grander than your love for them is God’s love. In these times, remind them that his love is as real as ever and that He has not forgotten about them.

9. Give Them Self-Care

Beyond just words, it’s the little actions that will be remembered. In this time, your loved one may be experiencing feelings that will appear to them to be so overwhelming, it may lead them to neglect personal hygiene and basic self-care.

Even a simple thing like taking a shower can seem like a chore to them on days when they are wrestling with severe episodes (whatever their mood disorder may be.) Help them learn to better prioritize their lives and their self-care. Just their very act of getting up and doing something for themselves can benefit them more than they may realize in the moment.

10. Take Care of Yourself

You are no good to anyone else if you are not first good to yourself. In order to be able to fully support your loved one in the way they need, you have to make sure you are in the best shape physically, mentally and emotionally. Only you know your limits, so make sure you set necessary boundaries for yourself.

In other words, don’t make promises you can’t keep. For example, if you leave the impression that it’s okay for your loved one to call at late hours to talk when it’s not, that is not helpful. Learn to invest in your own personal well-being, not just that of your loved one. Don’t give up on the things you enjoy. Eat healthy meals, exercise and get a good night’s sleep every night. Above all, seek your strength from God, so you can offer comfort to your loved one in their time of great need.

11. Discuss Options to Get Help

According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), family members and friends dealing with a mental illness should be encouraged to seek professional help (one option is to see a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health professional). As you approach this subject with your loved one, it’s important to keep an open mind when considering treatment options.

The best way to find out what your loved one needs is to ask direct questions and not enforce your own ideas regarding what you think is the best route they should follow. If you think the person may harm him or herself, weigh the options carefully before contacting the police or a crisis intervention hotline. No matter what decision they make, continue to provide support for your family member or friend.

12. Pray For Your Loved One

As a Bible-believing Christian, I cannot deny the powerful effect of prayer in all crisis situations. Therefore, we recommend that you make it a daily habit to pray with and for your loved one who is dealing with a mental illness. When you are in your quiet prayer time with God, be open and honest about your loved one’s needs and be patient as you wait on the Lord. You can never go wrong when you allow for divine intervention in the life of your loved one.

Our friends over at An Anxious Kind of Mind, put together a FREE resource that we think you’d find helpful. Click on the image below to get it. 

No one should have to go through a battle alone. If you or someone you know needs help, please see the list of resources we put together just for you.

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Alexandra Chelse
Alexandra Chelse

Alexandra Chelse is the founder and lead storyteller of Speak The Words Communications. As a child, she could always be found with a book. Now as a young adult, her love for storytelling has only deepened. She is a diversity issues blogger, mental health advocate, visionary, and woman of faith. Aside from writing, she also facilitates storytelling workshops for children, youth and adults in the community. She is seeking daily to be transformed by God's grace.

1 Comment
  1. Your comments are so well-reasoned and helpful. When I was suffering from anxiety disorders, shame was a huge factor that held me back. The kinds of suggestions you make are practical and can make a big difference when in the throes of dealing with a mental illness.

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