How to Support A Loved One With Mental Illness
Mental health challenges can be very difficult for not only the individual who possesses them but also their loved ones. These challenges can create change, stress, tension, and uncertainty among an entire family unit or friend group. Mental illness impacts roughly 1 in 5 adults and about 1 in 6 of children within the United States. 1 in 25 adults lives with someone who experiences serious mental illness. About 8.4 million people provide care for an adult with mental health challenges. Those experiencing mental illness can often feel isolated and misunderstood. These individuals may be experiencing disruption in their emotional, psychological, and social well-being. All these components translate into how we interact with others, handle stress, and make positive choices.
Causes and Symptoms of Mental Illness
While witnessing your loved one deal with their mental health issues you may be wondering “why is this happening?” Well, mental illness can occur for several different reasons. One cause of mental illness is genetics. If your loved one has a history of mental illness within their family, they have a greater chance of developing a mental illness as well. Another cause for mental illness can be your loved one’s brain chemistry. We all have neurotransmitters that transmit signals to other parts of the body. However, some individuals have impaired neural networks that are unable to receive and process information. For example, this can lead to depression and/or anxiety in the body. Environmental factors can also cause mental illness such as financial hardships, substance use, racial disparities, abuse, loss of a family member or friend, etc.
Anyone can be impacted by my mental health issues and the support of loved ones can bring positive outcomes with the right tools. Symptoms of mental illness can look differently on everyone however it is important to know some of the key signs that indicate potential mental illness.
- Withdrawn from family and friends
- Little to no interest in once-enjoyed activities
- Changes in mood
- Experiencing a traumatic and/or stressful event
- Difficulty sleeping/oversleeping
- Decrease in school performance
- Difficulty concentrating
- Engaging in risky behavior
When witnessing a loved one experiencing some of these symptoms we may often think to ourselves “they’re just acting weird,” “they don’t love me anymore,” or maybe “they need to try harder”. You may also feel guilt, sadness, or anger as a result of your loved one’s past and/or current challenges. These thoughts and feelings are natural and common to have however it’s important to consider other possibilities. It can be helpful to remember that almost all individuals experience some symptoms of mental illness such as anxiety and/or feeling down or sad. However, some individuals can overcome these feelings with more ease than others. It may also be helpful to look at mental illness symptoms just as you would medical symptoms for a cold or virus. Both mental and physical symptoms of illness are uncontrollable for the individual without treatment. Therefore, it’s important not to place blame but rather listen for understanding.
Conversations With Your Loved One
An important and helpful step in supporting your loved one struggling with their mental health is simply being open and listening to what your loved one is experiencing. If your loved one doesn’t initiate the conversation you may be wondering how to start the conversation and maybe even how to show up for them. Here are some things you can do while engaging in the conversation:
Start by being straightforward with why you are having the conversation (ex. witnessing some of the symptoms listed above)
Ensure your loved one is safe and comfortable talking
Look out for signs that show you may need to slow down and take a step back from the conversation (this can look like anger, confusion, and intense emotional reactions)
Be caring, empathetic, validating, and open to listening and understanding
Discussing mental illness can be a difficult task for some and therefore they may be reluctant to share so being patient will be important. Sometimes people with mental health challenges will distance themselves from others to protect those that they may be causing pain. However, you can continue to encourage them and include them in activities and conversations even when they aren’t opening up. Positive distractions can be good at times for those dealing with mental health challenges. This could look like having a conversation about something other than mental health, inviting your loved one to go on a walk, or doing a fun activity together. Exercise and/or some type of physical movement is known to have positive benefits on mental health and therefore it’s highly suggested to choose an activity involving movement. Although talking to you can be great for your loved one it’s important to remember that you are not a professional and therefore can’t provide them with all the help they need. If your loved one isn’t currently seeing a mental health professional, recommending they see one can greatly benefit them and you. A mental health professional will provide your friend or family member with extensive knowledge on mental illness and a detailed and specific plan to accurately assess and treat their mental illness. Therapy also provides an open and safe space for your loved one, free of judgment.
Stigmas & The Importance of Education
People with mental illness will often shy away from seeking treatment and won’t get the help they need due to stigmas regarding mental health. Your loved one may think going to therapy and having a mental illness is only for people with serious problems, which means they are incapable, or even crazy. Each of these statements are untrue as therapy can be for everyone. Going to therapy also doesn’t equate to being incapable or crazy but rather possessing challenges and needing external assistance to overcome them. They also may be fearful of what others will think if they find out they are going to therapy. There is a lot of misunderstanding and false information regarding therapy therefore, your role as a supportive caregiver or friend may include providing some education around therapy for your loved one and yourself.
Supporting Suicidality & Self-Harm
Many individuals dealing with mental health issues will have thoughts of suicide and/or self-harm. If a loved one discloses to you that they are thinking about ending their life and engaging in self harm this is a time to seriously encourage them to contact their mental health professional if they already have one and reach out about services if not. It’s also important to remain by their side as they most likely shouldn’t be alone. Sometimes your loved one could also have thoughts around harming someone else and these thoughts should be taken just as seriously. If you suspect your loved one may be dwelling on thoughts of ending their life or someone else’s without verbally expressing it to you, strongly encourage them to see a mental health professional. When these thoughts are combined with a plan and the means to act on the thoughts this could be an emergency and a further step such as taking them to the emergency room may need to be done. If your loved one gives permission, you can speak with their doctor and/or mental health professional to find specific ways to best support your loved one during this time.
Caring for yourself
Your loved one’s mental health will change over time due to the level of current resources to combat their illness. Symptoms of mental illness and/or severity of suicidal thoughts can look differently day to day which may cause you to be flexible with how you show up and support your loved one. Therefore, taking care of yourself is crucial. It can be difficult to care for others without also taking care of our own physical and mental wellbeing. Be realistic with yourself and the type of support you can give your loved one. Balance the support you can give with the support that others can give such as other family members, friends, and mental health professionals. Lastly, give yourself some grace! This isn’t easy and any help you can provide to your loved one is appreciated.
Along with recommending your loved one see a mental health professional you can also suggest support groups in your area and helplines for them to contact.
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: call 988
- 24/7 hotline for those with suicidal thoughts and/or in a crisis
- Crisis text line: text Hello to 741741
- Youthline: text teen2teen to 839836 or call 1-877-968-8191
- Specifically, children and adolescents ages 11-21
- The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678
- LGBTQIA+ kids and teens who need a safe space to talk
- Trans lifeline: 1-877-565-8860
- Support specifically for transgender and questioning individuals
Matone Counseling and Testing offers a plethora of well-educated and trained professionals to provide your loved one with the treatment they need. If you or anyone you know is in need of mental health services please reach out to our staff.
South Charlotte: 704-503-8196 | Cotswold: 704-264-2973 | Ashville: 828- 333-9320
Asha English is a Counseling Intern at Matone Counseling and Testing. She is currently pursuing her Master’s of Arts degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Northwestern University. Asha currently treats children, adolescents, and young adults.
Written by: Asha English
Mental health by the numbers. NAMI. (n.d.). https://www.nami.org/mhstats
Jones, H. (2023, August 3). What is a chemical imbalance?. Verywell Health. https://www.verywellhealth.com/chemical-imbalance-5191365
Warning signs and risk factors for emotional distress. SAMHSA. (2023, June 9). https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/disaster-distress-helpline/warning-signs-risk-factors