Helping someone who has a mental illness: for family and friends
Published: 5 March, 2019
Someone who has been diagnosed with a mental health condition needs care and support – just like anyone with any other illness.
Family and friends can provide better care if they are informed about the illness, understand the type of treatment and are aware of the expected recovery time.
How to tell if someone has a mental illness
Even if you know someone well, it’s not always easy to notice changes in their behaviour. You’re more likely to notice big or sudden changes, but gradual changes can be easy to miss.
It’s also true that people who are experiencing a mental illness will not always reveal all their thoughts and feelings to their close friends and family. Because of this, family and friends cannot expect to always know when someone has a mental illness and should not feel guilty that they ‘did not know’.
The best approach is to acknowledge that mental illnesses are common and to learn how to recognise the signs and how to offer help.
Signs to look out for:
- Withdrawal from social interactions
- Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy
- Insomnia (can’t sleep) or hypersomnia (too much sleep)
- Weight loss or gain
- Anger or irritability
What to do if you are concerned about a family member or close friend
If you’re worried about the mental health of a family member or close friend, try gently explaining why you’re concerned and provide examples of things they have said or done recently that are worrying you.
If you think the person may need professional support, suggest that they consult their GP or another mental health professional, like a psychiatrist or psychologist. Some people may be reluctant to seek help. Young Australians are particularly hesitant, with more than 60 percent feeling uncomfortable seeking professional support.
Providing them some information such as a book, fact sheets or helpful pamphlets that they can read privately can also help.
You could assist them in seeking professional help by doing the following:
- Helping them finding someone that they feel comfortable talking to
- Offering to making an appointment for them on their behalf if they say that’s ok
- Going with them to the appointment on the day if they feel this will help
- Accompanying them during the assessment interview if they and their care provider agree that this is appropriate. This may be particularly useful if the person’s symptoms are severe (e.g. during psychosis or mania) or if they are having difficulty thinking and communicating clearly.
Young people, especially adolescents, are vulnerable to mental health problems. If you are concerned about a young person in your life, try doing the following:
- Find a good time to talk when there are no pressures or interruptions
- Gently tell them about things they have said or done recently that are worrying you
- After you have expressed your concerns, stop and listen with the goal of understanding their point of view
- Try to avoid the urge to give advice or problem-solve immediately. Instead, let them talk and reassure them that problems with mental health are common and treatable.
- Suggest options and ask them what they would like to do. They might like to talk to their family GP, or another health professional, or simply find a trusted friend or family member that they can confide in. There are also a range of services (e.g. telephone counselling and websites) that are specifically designed for young people, including headspace.
How to behave with someone who is experiencing a mental health condition
It is important to show as much patience, care and encouragement as possible. Someone experiencing a mental health condition is very good at criticising themselves and needs vital support from others, not criticism. Clear and kind communication within the household or family is also important.
Here are some tips on how to behave around someone who has a mental illness:
- This person isn’t functioning the way you are, and what works for you may not work for them. Try to respect where they’re at even if you don’t quite understand it just yet.
- Avoid suggesting that the problem can be solved with more effort or simple changes. This can feel isolating and shaming. People with mental illness need to know they belong, are supported and that there is help.
- Try and help the treatment process. If medication has been prescribed, help the person remember to take it and to discuss any side effects with their prescribing doctor. The person may also need encouragement and help getting to therapy appointments or therapy exercises.
- A key goal of psychotherapy is to help the person change how they think and act. This process can impact relationships as the person tries to acknowledge and change past behaviours. While this can be difficult for everyone involved, try not to steer the person away from these issues.
What to do if someone is suicidal
If you are worried that someone close to you is suicidal or unsafe, you can try the following:
- Don’t be afraid to ask if a person is thinking about suicide. You won’t increase their risk of suicide. While asking can be awkward, not asking can be much worse.
- If they are in immediate danger or can’t keep themselves safe, call Emergency Services on 000 or take them to the Hospital Emergency Service department
- If they are not in immediate danger but are still thinking about harming themselves, encourage them to seek help immediately from a mental health professional, or call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Remove risks – take away dangerous weapons, remove car keys and ensure potentially dangerous medications are kept safe for the time being. If the person tells you how they might be planning to harm them self, remove whatever means they are planning to use.
- Help the person to develop a clear, written safety plan that tells them which trusted close friends or family members they can call in times of emergency
- Remember that if someone is feeling like their life is not worth living that they are experiencing overwhelming emotional distress
Self-care for carers
Carers are also likely to experience stress and therapy can release difficult thoughts and emotions in carers too.
So, part of caring is for carers to look after themselves to prevent becoming physically run down and to deal with their internal thoughts and emotions. This often means getting support though friends, family, community groups, online forums or even mental health professionals. Make sure that you plan (and do!) pleasant things for yourself that may not involve the person you are caring for.
The following information and support services for carers provide tools and resources designed to help you be the best support you can be:
If you or someone you know is in crisis please call one of the following national helplines:
LIFELINE COUNSELLING SERVICE - 13 11 14
SUICIDE CALL BACK SERVICE 1300 659 467 (cost of a local call)