Supporting someone with a mental health problem

Supporting someone with mental health problems can be an exhausting and difficult task, and you might not know how best to help them. The Mix is here to offer some advice on how best to help someone with a mental illness.

three girls sitting together smiling

Just be there for them.

How will I know if someone I care about has a mental health problem?

If someone you care about is experiencing mental health problems, you might not know what to do or say. But often it’s really tough to know what is going on inside a person’s head, leaving you wondering how you’ll know if a friend or relative is experiencing a mental health problem:

  • They may just tell you outright about it, in a matter of fact way.
  • Sometimes they may try to conceal it, especially if they have feelings of fear, embarrassment, shame, or guilt.
  • If you offer help, they may be defensive or aggressive.
  • You might be told it’s none of your business and you should keep your nose out.

Alternatively, your friend or relative could become desperately clingy and start relying on you heavily. Occasionally they will be unaware that there is a problem at all.

How should I feel after a loved one tells me they have a mental health problem?

Living with a parent who has mental health problems may leave you feeling confused, angry or helpless. And if it’s a friend who needs help, this might also affect your social life or require your friendship with them to change for a short while. You could even find yourself having to care for their wellbeing for a short while.

It’s completely natural for you to have a reaction to being told that someone you care about has a mental illness. Some things you might feel are:

  • Intensely worried, and as though you are solely responsible for their well being
  • Shocked or afraid, and reject them in some way, especially if you don’t really know much about their health problems
  • Powerless to help your friend or family member, especially if they’re telling you that there’s nothing you can do
  • Frustration that the person isn’t doing enough to get well, or think that they have brought their health problems on themselves

Spending time around someone who is depressed or anxious may cause you to feel depressed or anxious too. And if you have been asked not to tell anyone else, even though you fear for their safety, you might face a dilemma about whether to break your promise and involve their family or medical services. All of this can mean that you’re unsure what you can do to help.

What can I do to help a friend or family member with a mental condition?

Try to learn and understand their mental illness

If they have already been diagnosed, try to find out more about the illness. It will give you more understanding, and may take away the stigma that surrounds it. You could:

Be supportive, not dismissive

Don’t tell them to ‘snap out of it’, or to ‘pull themselves together’. It’s quite likely that they are unable to do so, and could knock their self-confidence badly, or make them feel you don’t understand their problems at all.

Don’t forget to look after yourself

There’s no point running yourself into the ground, you will be able to give much more help to the person you care about if you’re in good shape. Some things you could try to make sure you’re looking after yourself whilst caring for someone with a mental illness are:

  • Talk to someone in confidence about what you’re going through. You don’t have to give your relative or friend’s name if you don’t want to. You have a right to be heard too!
  • Don’t be afraid to share the responsibility of caring for your friend or relative and their mental illness, and don’t struggle alone. Get relatives, other friends, the GP, community psychiatric nurses, and other support agencies involved.
  • Set a few boundaries. If they are being very clingy or manipulative, or are relying on you completely, don’t be scared to. It doesn’t mean that you don’t want to be supportive in other ways.
  • Join a support group for carers, or friends and relatives. It’s good to feel that you’re not alone, and they may be able to help you in practical ways as well.

Help them get professional help

If you think they are likely to harm themselves, don’t be scared to call for medical attention. You may be betraying their confidence, but you could also be saving their life.

How will a friend or relative’s illness affect me?

Stigma: The negative view some people have of mental illness can be hard to cope with.If they are shunned by society it can start to impact on you, making you feel isolated

Lack of social life: Not being able to invite friends home or have the time to spend with them can be hard to deal with.

Education and employment: “You may have to stay up late to look after your parents,” explains young carers development worker Danni Manzi from the Princess Royal Trust for Carers.

Health implications: Looking after a parent or friend can have a negative effect on your health. Research by the Loughborough University Research Group found young carers experienced:

  • Physical health problems such as weight loss or ulcers
  • 40% experienced mental health problems such as depression, stress and low self-esteem
  • 70% experienced long-term psychological effects

Out of 61 young carers from Edinburgh Young Carers Project asked about their problems and worries, over one-third said they had self-harmed and 36% had thought of suicide.

If a relative is mentally ill, does that mean I will be too?

Just because a relative has been mentally unwell, it doesn’t mean that you will be too. Whilst genetics do dictate that you might be more susceptible, it doesn’t mean you absolutely will suffer from the same mental illness. You can also take measures to help lessen your susceptibility to developing a mental illness by:

  • Avoiding drinking too much
  • Not taking drugs
  • Controlling your diet

If you’re concerned that you’ve been showing symptoms of the same mental illness, then you can make an appointment to have a chat with your GP.

Read Penelope’s experience of her parents’ drug use.

Next Steps

  • 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.

By Holly Turner

Updated on 27-Mar-2021