Ways to Support Your Loved One Who Has Mental Illness

Dealing with a mental illness can be devastating. Loving someone with mental illness can be as well.

If someone in your family has been diagnosed with a mental illness, it can be difficult to cope with, for everyone. It can be a challenge to understand what’s going on, but there are things you can do to provide support in a healthy way. There are some actions we should and shouldn’t take, but one of the things we may miss is that we need to look after ourselves as well.

Indeed, it can be stressful living with someone with a mental illness, and it can be equally difficult to maintain your relationship with a family member who doesn’t live with you. If you know how to help a family member with mental illness, that loved one’s life and recovery can be changed for the better.

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What is Mental Illness?

Mental illnesses are psychological disorders that affect how we feel, think and behave. Often those affected thoughts and feelings don’t match up with objective reality. Someone with major depression may be intelligent, good-looking, healthy and successful, but in their mind feel utterly worthless. They feel the weight of an anguish that comes out of nowhere, and can’t get out of its way.

mental illnesses affect how we feel, think and behave

They may stop taking care of themselves. They’re usually clean-cut and well dressed, but they haven’t changed their clothes all week. They barely get out of bed, and don’t even go through the motions of a personal care routine. Dirty dishes pile in the sink, and the trashcan is overfilled.

Someone diagnosed with borderline personality disorder may have explosive outbursts, putting you down with cutting insults and telling you they don’t ever want to see you again. Then the next day ask you for a favor as if the outburst never happened. They can’t stand your presence, but desperately need your attention.

Mental illness is cruel. Your loved one’s very perception of reality may be affected, and you don’t understand what’s going on. You may never understand what’s going on. You don’t necessarily have to, but it will help if you understand ways to support that loved one with a mental illness.

mental illness is cruel

Show Acceptance

It seems simple, but sometimes we avoid addressing some issues because we’re afraid. We don’t want to talk about depression because we’re afraid of losing someone to suicide. We may avoid talking about someone’s posttraumatic stress disorder because we’re afraid of triggering them or we just don’t want to think about the trauma experienced.

Merely showing acceptance is one of the key ways to support a loved one with a mental illness. It’s a part of their life and a condition of their existence, and it may always be. It’s also a part of your life because you have a relationship with this person. You love them. Don’t let mental illness get in the way. Your family member may have varying degrees of acceptance of the illness, but you can accept it in a loving way.

There is a stigma associated with mental illness. There are a variety of negative associations that people make, but it doesn’t have to be like that. If your loved one broke their ankle, you would ask them about it. If they have depression, you can ask them how her mood is. It’s okay to ask how someone is feeling, especially if you’ve noticed a change in behavior.

the best way we can support someone with mental illness is by showing acceptance

Sometimes, the best way we can support someone with mental illness is by showing acceptance.

  • If you see that someone is visibly uncomfortable, just ask what they need. If you’re out at a store with your spouse who is visibly agitated about something, ask if it would be better to leave. Don’t ignore these changes, and try not to be embarrassed by them in public.
  • Sometimes it takes an incredible amount of effort just to leave the house. If going to the store didn’t work, it’s okay. Just don’t stop trying. If someone is overwhelmed by all the activity at the grocery store, don’t avoid it altogether. Just find a time when the store isn’t so busy.
  • A diagnosis of mental illness doesn’t define who they are. Let them know that diagnosis is just a way of describing the way their mind feels or conceives things. It affects their behavior, and it allows their doctor or therapist to give a framework to how they should approach their treatment. It can be that simple.


One of the worst parts of mental illness is the fear you have about someone. Will their mood be grandiose, or will they be unable to get out of bed? Will they be irritable because their anxiety feels like its ripping them apart? You don’t know, and you might not be ready to find out.

But it’s important to address these things. People with mental illnesses might not always notice how their moods or behaviors have changed. Or perhaps it just seems like there’s been a change. You may notice that someone seems distant, but it could be a simple worry about something going on at work rather than an oncoming depressive episode.

Just ask. If you notice a change in behavior, ask about it. “You don’t seem to be sleeping well. Is anything bothering you?” “You look worried all the time. Is there something I can do to help?” It can be easy to check-in and see how someone is doing.

If your loved one is experiencing more severe symptoms, ask what has helped in the past. Moreover, make sure you show support and empathy. “I see that you haven’t been eating well. You’re starting to lose weight, and I’m worried about you. Do we need to get you an appointment with your psychiatrist?”

Be honest with your loved one — and with yourself — about your concerns. You should also talk about things you can do to be supportive. We’re all different, and we all respond to things in unique ways. One person may feel comforted by a hug to ease anxiety, but another might not want anyone in their space. Ask.

Communicate about how you can be supportive. You may think you are doing something to be supportive, but it might not be received that way. Behavior is communication, but it isn’t always clear. Follow-up on your actions with conversation.

show support and empathy

Healthy Boundaries

Loving someone who has a mental illness can truly test the limits of a relationship. They could even blame you for their illness. Please don’t accept that blame. The causes of mental illness are incredibly complex. There are genetic and environmental factors, and it can be very difficult to pinpoint an exact cause.

you cannot take the blame

A child, even an adult child, may try to blame their parents for their diagnosis, but you simply cannot accept that. Acknowledge the frustration and reaffirm your support. Tell your child that you will support them as best you can, but you cannot take the blame.

On the other hand, in the course of therapy, sometimes things come up that happened during childhood. It’s okay. No parent is perfect. Most of us model some poor behaviors for our children at one point or another. If your child talks to you about some of these things, acknowledge them.

  • Apologize if necessary. You can’t change the past, but you can learn from it.
  • Use this as an opportunity to connect with your child on a deeper, more mature level.
  • If necessary, process this situation with someone you trust.
  • Learn a new skill if you need to. It’s never too late to learn to change an unhealthy habit, especially if it affects those we love.

There may also be times when your loved one says things to you out of anger, that aren’t based on reality. This can be very difficult to cope with, especially when your loved one doesn’t remember it happening, or doesn’t even believe it happened. It’s vital for your own emotional well-being that you don’t internalize these things.

It’s also important that you don’t make an argument out of these events. Respond with a simple statement in the moment. Let’s say your child is in fit of rage, and they accuse you of interfering with their relationships. Give a simple response. “I’m sorry you feel that way. I do my best to support your relationships.” Don’t let discussions like this escalate.

If there is some truth to such a statement, acknowledge it. “I wouldn’t let them come to our house because they were abusive to you. I’m sorry that hurt you. I would like to talk to you about this when things are calmer.”

Sometimes parents have to make choices for their children that are in their best interests, but still not welcomed by the child. If your child is agitated, it might not be the best time to discuss them. Nevertheless, you should still discuss them.

  • These discussions may not happen while your child is still a member of your household, but it’s still important to process these things.
  • You also may not be able to make your child understand these decisions. If your child is still living in your household, you have to make these choices, even if you’re afraid of your child’s response.
  • If you don’t set these boundaries for your household, you may find that the situation deteriorates. Your loved one has a mental illness and may not be able to conceive a rational reason for the limits you set.

It’s okay. You have to set them. You can’t let one person’s behavior rule your household, especially if there are younger siblings. Your limits will also help protect them. Have a family meeting and set the ground rules.

sometimes parents have to make choices for their children that are in their best interests, but not welcomed by the child

Define Acceptable Behavior: Make it clear what kind of behavior is unacceptable. You’ve seen it. Make it clear that you can’t accept it, whether they’re staying up all night and disrupting everyone’s sleep, or isolating and disengaging from family life.

Make it Clear That Treatment is Necessary: If your loved one isn’t in any kind of treatment program, whether it’s individual or group therapy or it’s psychiatric medication or all of these, start with a call to the doctor. Get a referral for therapy and talk about medications. If they’re in treatment, make it clear that they need to actively participate.

Your Household Can’t Revolve Around Them: You may have to discuss finding them an alternate arrangement if they continue to disrupt the household. You may have to find a residential treatment program. This will be difficult, but sometimes we can’t provide the necessary level of support that a loved one with mental illness needs.

Our children aren’t the only ones affected by their mental illness. You may have to set the same boundaries with your spouse. If you have children, it’s very important that you help your spouse find treatment to ensure the both of you can continue to be healthy role models for how people should treat each other and engage with life.

No matter who this is, don’t make these boundaries seem like they’re a punishment. Treatment for mental illness is just like any other healthcare problem. Let your loved one know this. This is no difference from a trip to the doctor for any other ailment. You’re worried about your loved one’s health, and you want it to be treated.

Enable Your Loved One, Not the Illness

This can be a challenge. Everyone has days when they feel down and don’t want to do anything. It’s okay to relax, revitalize and then go take care of things the next day. With depression, though, it might not just be a day. Days turn into weeks and weeks into months. Depression can emotionally paralyze some of us.

depression can emotionally paralyze us

We want to take care of the people we love. It’s normal. We let them rest for that day. However, it’s important to encourage them to get back into the swing of things. This is another boundary we have to set. You can’t always take care of everything for your loved one. Self-care is a part of life. When you take care of things for someone who can do them, you can make a downward spiral much worse.

Taking care of yourself means taking responsibility for your care. If your loved one is an adult — and capable — they should make their own appointments and drive or coordinate their own transportation. They should make sure their prescriptions are refilled. You shouldn’t have to do all these things for someone who’s capable. Letting your loved one do these things for themselves will help build them back up.

you have to take care of yourself, or you may not be able to take care of anyone

Your loved one may also resent some of the caretaking you do. Set up ways that your loved one can have reminders of things to do to take care of themselves. Use a wall calendar to show appointment dates and a pillbox with days of the week to help him keep track of their medications. Doing these things will help them regain confidence and help relieve some of your stress.

Take Care of Yourself

This is vital to your well-being. Just knowing that your loved one has a mental illness can be stressful, even if it’s under control. You wonder if something is going to trigger them to isolate themselves or to fly off the handle over nothing. It can consume much of you, and it’s much worse when the illness is in an active cycle.

We want to do everything we can to help those we love. We want to make it better. When we can’t, we hurt. Even if the boundaries and household dynamics are set and the ground rules are clear, it is still stressful to love someone who has a mental illness. You have to take care of yourself, or you may end up not being able to take care of anyone.

You may be isolating, yourself. Spend time with friends. If there’s someone you can confide in, share your stresses. If not, just do something fun. Go shopping. Take a walk in the woods. Just go out for a coffee. Go see a movie and laugh. These are things we take for granted, but they’re so important to do on a regular basis.

Your loved one has a mental illness and neither you, nor anyone else, can control or change that. You must find ways to take care of yourself and enjoy things about your life. You can go back to your loved one, recharged.

Know the Symptoms

It can sometimes be easy to notice that something has changed for someone. Your usually happy and cheerful wife may not be smiling much. No one really smiles all the time, but it’s been a while. Your son is an avid college football fan and never misses watching his team play on TV, but he doesn’t know how they’re doing this year. It could be nothing. He could just be very busy with his job.

You see the change, though. Ask about it. It might be scary to think about the possibility of your loved one having a mental illness, but it’s not going to go away. Don’t dismiss it as “just a phase.” Your assumption about your child being busy with work could be wrong. They could be struggling with the onset of a mental illness, and they don’t know what to do.

don't dismiss it as "just a phase"

Telling them that how withdrawn they’ve been has you worried and that you’re interested in what’s going on could help them. It could even save them.

Here are some signs and symptoms of mental illness to watch for.

  • Unusual Feelings: Feeling down or sad, especially when there’s no apparent situation to associate it with. Sadness over situations and events is normal. It can develop into situational depression. It is vital to address this when it happens.
  • Difficulty Concentrating: Extreme sadness or anxiety and obsessive thoughts can make it difficult to focus. Someone with mental illness might not even recognize that these thoughts aren’t normal.
  • Extreme Fears or Anxieties: Fear and, to some extent, anxiety are normal, but when they present in an extreme or even irrational form, this can be a sign of mental illness, especially if it starts to happen more often.
  • Lack of Ability to Cope With Everyday Issues: Doing simple things like washing dishes could be too stressful or being on time for work or school could become overwhelming.
  • Isolation: We often isolate when we can’t deal with our thoughts and don’t know what’s happening in our minds. If someone is withdrawing from her social life and activities, check in to see what’s going on. It could be something simple that’s easy to process through, or it could be something more serious.
  • Extreme Mood Swings: This could be extreme highs and lows, or it could be sudden bursts of anger or hostility that seem to come out of nowhere.
  • Drug or Alcohol Abuse: People sometimes use drugs or alcohol to escape problems. Trying to self-medicate a mental illness can become a very serious issue.
  • Disconnection: Look for signs in your loved one to indicate disconnection from reality or difficulty understanding or connecting to situations and people. This could be paranoid delusions or hallucinations or it could be a simpler inability to connect with reality. These can get in the way of normal functioning.
  • Significant Changes in Routines: There may be a lack of energy or extreme tiredness, or there could be serious difficulty sleeping. Eating habits may change — overeating or extreme loss of appetite. There could be significant changes in libido.
  • Suicidal Ideations or Intentions: Always treat a discussion of suicidal thoughts like it’s a serious threat.

If someone shows any of these signs, you need to address them in order to help your family member with mental illness. Let him know you’re concerned and that you want to help him get the help he needs.

always treat a discussion of suicidal thoughts like it's a serious threat

What You Can Do Next

The most important way to support your loved one is to help them get help for their mental illness. It may not always be a question of life or death, but it will always help your loved one’s quality of life.

Moreover, you may want to take care of them yourself, but getting professional help for someone with a mental illness can be critical. You would let a professional deal with a physical illness like acute appendicitis. You should also get a professional involved with your loved one’s mental illness.

It can be as simple as calling a hotline in your state to find resources in your area. It can be more involved, as well. If you need to help a family member with mental illness, especially if there are drug and alcohol abuse issues, we’ll be able to help.

For more information, contact 12 Keys Rehab.

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