When your loved one is diagnosed with a mental illness, it can be a scary time for both of you. It’s important to remember that mental illness is treatable and that your support can make a difference in your loved one’s quality of life.
While you may want to help your loved one stay well, you may not know how. Start with these tips:
- End the stigma. Does your loved one feel ashamed when talking about his or her condition or not want to seek help? It may help your loved one to know that mental illness is common – and treatable. (One in five adults experiences a mental health condition every year, reports the National Alliance on Mental Illness.)
- Show you care. Check in regularly and continue including your loved one in your plans. Listen when he or she needs to talk. Or offer a hug.
- Learn about your loved one’s illness. Doing so helps you and your loved one in many ways – from making wiser decisions about treatment to knowing what kind of quality of life to expect. Books and support groups can be good resources. You can also find valuable information online from credible organizations such as Mayo Clinic or the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
- Find out if your loved one is getting the right care. If not, offer to connect your loved one to the help he or she needs. Once your loved one has a treatment team, get involved if it’s helpful and appropriate. With your loved one’s consent, you can ask his or her treatment team what you can do to help your loved one and what to expect for recovery.
- Empower your loved one. While you may be tempted to completely take charge of your loved one’s life, doing so isn’t healthy for either of you. Instead, empower him or her. For example, instead of driving your loved one to every appointment, teach him or her how to use the bus system.
- Ask your loved one what he or she is thinking or feeling. This includes talking about suicidal thoughts, even though that may be uncomfortable. If you’re unsure how to start the conversation, you might start with, “What kind of thoughts are you having?”
- Call emergency services if needed. If you feel your loved one is in danger of self-harm or harm to others, don’t wait to call emergency services.
- Use helpful phrases. These phrases (backed by action) can go a long way in making your loved one feel supported: “I’m here for you.” “You’re not alone.” “This is not your fault.” “I can go with you (to an appointment).” “What can I do for you?” Or say nothing and simply listen.
Look after your own needs
Supporting a loved one with mental illness is often a marathon, not a sprint. But giving ongoing support can be tiring. It’s important to set boundaries and not feel guilty for looking after your own needs. It’s okay – and healthy and necessary – to carve out time for a walk, a massage or a vacation, for example.
Reach out for support
Helping someone manage a mental illness can bring up a range of strong feelings. You may blame yourself for the illness, even though it’s likely you couldn’t have done anything differently to prevent it. Or you may feel worried or sad about the diagnosis and your loved one’s future.
Talking to a provider through your Employee Assistance Program or joining a support group can help. The stigma of mental illness can keep those living with it – and their loved ones – from seeking support. But this support can provide much needed strength, knowledge and hope.
Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, “15 Ways to Support a Loved One with Serious Mental Illness,” Psych Central,
Shirley M. Glynn, PhD et al. “Supporting a Family Member with Serious Mental Illness,” American Psychological Association,
“Supporting a Friend or Family Member with Mental Health Problems,” MentalHealth.gov, http://www.mentalhealth.gov/talk/friends-family-members/index.html.
Shirley M. Glynn, PhD et al., “How to Cope When a Loved One Has a Serious Mental Illness,” American Psychological Association,
Lindsay Holmes, “7 of the Most Helpful Things You Can Say to Someone with Depression,” 11 September 2014,
This article is for informational and self-help purposes only. It should not be treated as a substitute for financial, medical, psychiatric, psychological, or behavioral health care advice, or as a substitute
for consultation with a qualified professional.
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