How to Help a Loved One With Mental Illness

Updated: May 8, 2020

New Leaf Counseling Group, LLC I Diverse Counselor & Therapist Team I Charlotte, NC

When a loved one has gone through a traumatic experience, is struggling with depression or anxiety, or has high stress levels, it can often seem like there’s no right thing to say.

You try your best to cheer them up and reach out but are met with defensiveness or the person shuts down, or you just don’t even know how to approach the situation, so it seems better not to even bring such a painful topic up and you just keep your relationship as though everything is normal, for everyone’s sake.

This is an article about how to help a Loved One with mental illness - including a list of what to do and what not to do in these situations, and then I’ll address more serious situations more specifically:

What Do I Say?

The two most important concepts to use are to acknowledge the difficulties that person is

experiencing and to be present. Because we love those around us, the immediate impulse is often to “fix” the person, or to tell them it’ll be okay, or to provide them with advice about how to get better. Realize that you are providing support by validating them. Here are some suggestions:

#1 - How to Help A Loved One With Mental Illness

DO let them share without providing advice:

People are sharing their feelings in order to be heard and validated; they’re not asking for advice. Is it possible that with your outside viewpoint it’s easier to see how they could get out of their current situation? Absolutely. But if someone reaches out and is sharing, don’t think they’re asking, “How can I fix this?” What they’re asking is: “Will you listen to me and understand that this is really hard?”

#2 - How to Help A Loved One With Mental Illness

DON'T tell people “I understand” or “I know just how you feel”:

There’s an almost instinctive response when someone is sharing a problem to commiserate and explain why you have been in a very similar place. We do this because we want people to know they’re not alone. The problem is, despite your best intentions, no one can truly understand where your loved one is but him/her at that very moment. Each situation is unique and you are a different person than they are. To be loving and supportive, let them tell you what they’re going through, and listen for the differences. Remember: they’re asking for you to listen, and to see them in their struggles. No two people in this world have the same paths. You love this person in their differences, so let them be different even in

the way that they are struggling.

#3 - How to Help A Loved One With Mental Illness

DON'T tell people “it’ll be okay”:

Notice the future tense of the sentence: It will be okay. It’s possible, and we all hope with the people we love that it will be okay in the future…but you can’t know that. And, more importantly, it’s not okay now and that’s the relevant time period we’re talking about.

Now is hard. Now for them might feel like drowning. Now is when they need you to hear them. It seems contradictory, but the most affirming thing you can give to your loved one is to say: “NOW IS TERRIBLE. You can’t fix now and neither can I. But I’m here now even though it’s really awful, and I’ll be here until we see how now might change.”

#4 - How to Help A Loved One With Mental Illness

DO openly dialogue if you’re deeply concerned by asking if they want to hurt or kill themselves:

Our culture hides discussions of self-harm (cutting or other self-destructive habits) and suicide, but I’ve witnessed over and over the enormous relief people exhibit when I ask if they are suicidal or have thoughts of harming themselves. Recognize that using the word “suicide” openly does not cause someone to kill themselves. People are often afraid to ask if someone is suicidal because they are worried it might plant an idea in their head and the person will possibly get worse. The opposite is true: bringing the topic out into the open in a calm manner can create the opportunity for dialogue.

You’re letting your loved one know they don’t have to keep any internal emotional pain they are going through a secret. Many people who are severely depressed worry intensely about being a burden to the people they love; you can help by using direct words and questions as calmly as possible.

What Do I Do?

Recognize that you are not the person ultimately responsible. Our relationships with loved ones are deeply important to our being in the world and you may feel you are the only one who can help. Just as you make decisions in your own life that are affected by others but are your decisions, it’s ultimately up to your loved one if they seek help. Your love and support can make an enormous difference, but you can’t save someone. Be careful with your own energy and boundaries; if the person you love is severely depressed or has suicidal thoughts, they need to be in the care of qualified mental health professionals. Encourage them to consider therapy, or to make an appointment with a primary care doctor or psychiatrist.