A guide to caring for someone with a mental health condition

An illustration of two people at a tennis court holding rackets. One has her arm around the other.

What’s it like to care for someone with a mental health condition?

It can be really challenging caring for someone who has any mental health condition, especially when they’re a family member or someone you’re close to. As a young carer or a young adult carer, it can sometimes be difficult to know how best to help, and how to make time to look after your own mental health too. 

If you’re in this situation, know that you’re not alone and we’re here to help.  

We spoke to Molly, who is a Peer Support Officer at Bipolar UK. Her dad lives with bipolar disorder, so she has lots of first-hand experience of what it’s like to live with and care for someone with a mental health condition. Using her advice, we’ve put together a guide to some of your questions.  

How do you help someone who experiences mental health issues?

Talk things through 

When someone you care for is struggling with their mental health, the best thing you can do is to encourage them to communicate what’s going on for them, as this will help you to understand how you can help. If they’re not comfortable talking face to face, then suggest they send you a letter or an email, or even talk to you on the phone – whatever works. 

Let them set the pace 

Remember, you’re not responsible for pushing the person you care for to seek help and it must be something they’re motivated to do on their own terms; but talking things through can really help. 

Help them find something they enjoy doing  

A change of scene and doing something that breaks an everyday routine can be helpful for someone who’s suffering from anxiety, and other mental health conditions too.  

Maybe there’s something the person you care for would love to try, but they don’t want to do it alone. If you offer to go with them, it could help them feel more confident (plus you get to try something new too!).

Look for extra support 

Know that you absolutely don’t have to do this alone. If you can, encourage the person you care for to seek help outside of your relationship; it will make you both feel more supported. This could be anyone from a friend or another family member, to a counsellor or doctor.  

Accessing some types of support can be nerve-wracking for those with a mental health condition, so you might want to offer to go with them for the first session or first few sessions, and then talk to them about withdrawing yourself so that they can have the support all for themselves. That way you know you haven’t left your loved one without support, but it allows you to relieve some of the pressure that you may have been feeling. 

How can the person you care for help you to help them?

Be open to specialist advice

There are lots of organisations who specialise in supporting people with mental health issues, so if the person you care for is willing, it can be really helpful to seek help outside of the family; this will take the pressure off you a little too.  

It’s possible to get family therapy through the NHS, so they could talk to their doctor about what might be available. 

They could reach out to organisations like BiPolar UK, for information and advice.  

Work together on a written plan  

Once you understand the things that the person you care for is going through, it can be helpful to come up with a written plan that you can all refer to when things become difficult.  

The plan could cover behaviours you should look out for, warning signs and how to respond in certain situations. It could also clarify types of behaviour that people find challenging and alternatives that everyone agrees to.  

Having it written down can make it more concrete, and doing it together helps it feel more like a joint decision. 

How can you look after your own mental health when caring for someone?

Set boundaries 

Setting boundaries doesn’t mean that you don’t care, or that you’re giving up on someone. You can be caring, loving and supportive and still keep your boundaries.  

For example, it’s ok to say that you’re not ready to be someone’s sole source of support. That’s a huge amount of pressure to put on yourself and can be something that can end up having a big impact on your mental health. It’s also ok to say that you want to take some time for yourself each day, outside of caring.  

You don’t have to discuss your boundaries with anyone, but it might help to write them down so you feel clear about what they are.  

Educate yourself 

Educating yourself about what your loved one is going through can be really helpful. Sometimes challenging behaviour can make you feel that you’ve done something wrong, or that you’re being difficult or unhelpful in some way, when actually the person you care for could be having a really tough time with their own mental health and doesn’t know how to express it.  

Be aware of support that you can get 

It’s natural to feel like you need a break from caring sometimes, and there are lots of services that are there for you to help with this.  

Speak to someone who knows about what’s available in your area, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau or your GP. Let yourself have a break or share the load without feeling guilty – this doesn’t mean you’re abandoning the person you love. It’s good to be honest about what you need! 

Don’t bottle things up 

It may seem obvious, but something we all sometimes do by accident is bottle things up and it’s so important to share what you’re going through. 

Talk about things with someone you trust. Holding things in impact you, and it can also build up a lot of frustration that can lead to you say things to the person you’re caring for in the heat of the moment, and in some cases can make a relationship more difficult. 

Consider family therapy 

Having a safe space with a neutral person present and guiding the conversation can be so helpful. When you’re caring for someone with mental health difficulties or if it’s a complicated situation, it can feel like a relief to have an expert there to mediate and offer support. 

Find the right moment  

it’s important to choose your moment wisely. If someone is going through something difficult or is in a space where they are likely to be reactionary or explosive, it can be harder to get your point across in the way you want. 

How do you tell other people about your caring situation?

It can be really difficult to share what you’re going through with people outside of the situation. You might feel embarrassed, ashamed, or worried people will see you in a different way once they find out. But your friends aren’t there to judge you and it’s so important to let people know so that they can support you – you will be surprised by how much it can help!  

Do some research first 

Having a caring responsibility is a huge pressure, but it can sometimes be one that is so integral to your identity that it can be hard to talk about without feeling guilty or mean, or like you’re betraying someone you love so much.

It’s helpful to investigate things and find out how other people have approached it. Knowing what to expect and what types of things people might ask can help take away a lot of the stress and fear involved. 

Speak to a friend 

Starting with a friend you trust is a good first step. You might want to choose to do this in a low-pressure way, like mentioning something on the way home from school, university or work.

Some people prefer to organise a little get-together or meeting with their peers to talk about it so they can tell everyone at the same time. You might like to try telling them over the phone, via text or Whatsapp, if you’re not ready to tell them face to face. 

Write down your story

Sometimes adults find it hard to understand the emotional nuances of the role of a young carer, so it can be hard to get your voice heard. To tackle this, some people find it easier to write out their full story, so that the people they give it to have something to reflect on. It also takes a lot of the pressure out of telling people. 

Speak to a professional 

Sometimes your peers, though often caring and understanding, are not always in the best position to help. Sharing with an adult as well, like a teacher or after-school club leader, or someone like your GP, can be a helpful step forward.   

If you or someone you know is caring for someone with mental health issues, you can speak to The Mix for help and support. Our trained team of experts and volunteers are here to talk about any issue and our services are completely free and confidential. 

Read our article on how to cope as a young carer. Find out the truth behind the myths about young carers.   

Head to our community boards to read more advice from Molly, and to get involved in other discussions.

Next Steps

  • Carers Trust is a major charity for, with and about carers. They work to improve support, services and recognition for anyone living with the challenges of unpaid caring.
  • Carers UK equips carers with practical help and advice. Meet others in the same position and get the support you need by joining Carers UK's online forum.
  • If you're under 25 and would like free confidential telephone counselling from The Mix to help you figure things out complete this form and we'll call you to arrange your first session.
  • YoungMinds are the voice for young people's mental health and wellbeing.
  • Mind offers advice and support to people with mental health problems. Their helpline runs nine to six from Monday to Friday. 0300 123 3393
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By

Updated on 13-Jan-2020