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9 Ways to Cope and Help a Loved One With a Mental Illness

Nearly one in five people in the United States live with a mental illness. As such, there’s a very good probability that you know someone who has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and major depressive disorder. If so, you know how difficult and heart-wrenching this can when it’s a loved one. And, it can also put a strain on your relationship, as well as your own health and well-being.

With that in mind, here 9 ways for you to cope and support a loved one with a mental illness.

1. Know the warning signs.

The first step you should take is becoming aware of the symptoms of mental illness. While these can vary, the most prevalent include:

  • Alcohol or drug abuse

  • Changes in sleeping, eating, and hygiene habits

  • Difficulty functioning at school or work

  • Extreme mood changes

  • Feeling disconnected from reality

  • Problems with memory and thinking

  • Social withdrawal

  • Thoughts of suicide

“If you’re concerned a friend or family member is exhibiting these signs, try to stay calm,” suggests the American Psychological Association. “It’s easy to imagine the worst-case scenario, but signs of mental illness often overlap with other problems.”

“Consider whether there are other circumstances that might be affecting the person’s mood or behavior. Did the person recently experience a shock, such as the death of a loved one? Have they recently lost a job or started a new school?”

2. Keep educating yourself.

After you’ve noticed the warning signs, continue educating yourself on the mental disorder that you’re friend or family member is displaying. PsychCentral has an exhaustive list of adult, childhood, and personality disorders -- as well as treatment options.

You could also pick-up the following books:

  • Defying Mental Illness: Finding Recovery with Community Resources and Family Support by Paul Komarek

  • The Complete Family Guide to Schizophrenia: Helping Your Loved One Get the Most Out of Life by Kim T. Mueser and Susan Gingerich

  • I Am Not Sick I Don't Need Help: How to Help Someone with Mental Illness by Xavier Amador, Ph.D.

  • The Burden of Sympathy: How Families Cope With Mental Illness by David A. Karp

  • The Bipolar Survival Guide: What You and Your Family Need to Know by David J. Miklowitz

  • When Someone You Love Has a Mental Illness: A Handbook for Family, Friends, and Caregivers, Revised and Expanded by Rebecca Woolis

3. Show sympathy and offer support.

Put yourself in your loved one’s shoes. If they’re showing signs of a mental problem or have been diagnosed, they’re going to be going through a lot of emotions ranging from embarrassment to feeling scared. They may even believe that the stigma surrounding mental health is severe enough that they won’t have anyone to be there for them.

Let them know that you are there for them. And, courtesy of, offer your support by:

  • Finding out if the person is getting the care that he or she needs and wants—if not, connect him or her to help

  • Expressing your concern and support

  • Reminding your friend or family member that help is available and that mental health problems can be treated

  • Asking questions, listening to ideas, and being responsive when the topic of mental health problems come up

  • Reassuring your friend or family member that you care about him or her

  • Offering to help your friend or family member with everyday tasks

  • Including your friend or family member in your plans—continue to invite him or her without being overbearing, even if your friend or family member resists your invitations

  • Educating other people so they understand the facts about mental health problems and do not discriminate

  • Treating people with mental health problems with respect, compassion, and empathy

4. Resist the urge to say “try harder.”

“If your son/wife/brother was having an asthma attack and your help consisted of saying things like ‘Try harder at breathing,’ it would not only be ineffective, it would be unsafe,” states the National Alliance on Mental Health. “And yet when it comes to matters of the brain, we have adopted the sentiment that grit will get us through—despite our national suicide rate being higher than our homicide rate.”

“Accept that this is a flawed logic and that your loved one’s mind is valuable and vital to controlling their ability to get well,” NAMI adds. “What do we do when we see someone having an asthma attack? We act fast, we supply them with medication when needed, we give them adequate time and treatment and room to breathe, and we teach them the skills to properly take care of themselves and their affliction.”

“Mental illnesses are scientific, physiological illnesses and need to be treated as such in order for wellness to be achieved.”

5. Express your concerns.

Talk about your worries, trying not to lecture,” advises Catherine Aponte Psy.D. “Give the clearest examples you can about the problems you are experiencing” For example, “When you get angry, you are not able/willing to tell me what you are angry about.”

“These kinds of clear statements directly state the problem and its negative results,” adds Dr. Aponte. Find out what they think “in a non-critical manner. Ask him/her if these actions are a problem for him/her too. Wait for him/her to answer.”

If they agree that they have a problem, brainstorm ideas on how to resolve it.

6. Do not become their therapist or enabler.

This can not be stressed enough. You are not your loved one’s therapist. In fact, if you aren’t a trained mental health professional this is highly inappropriate. Instead, leave this to an outside party, such as a therapist they meet either in person or through teletherapy. Your role should be reserved for providing love and support.

Additionally, you also aren’t their crutch. That means they must take responsibility, or at least as much as possible, for their actions, well-being, and treatment plan.

7. Set realistic expectations.

Maybe from personal experience, or at least knowing someone who has, just because you’re released from a hospital doesn’t mean that you’re back to 100%. You still need time to get back to your routine, build-up strength, and completely fight-off the alignment.

The same is true when experiencing a mental illness. Just because it’s been discussed and they may have even begun treatment they still need time to learn coping mechanisms. Along the way, they may even experience setbacks.

With that in mind, be patient and don’t push them too hard if they’re uncomfortable.

8. Practice self-care.

Supporting a loved one with a mental illness can be emotionally, mentally, and physically tolling. Make self-care a priority so that you don’t burn yourself and can be there for your loved ones when they need you.

Remember, self-care isn’t being selfish. It’s attending to your own needs and well-being so that you can help others.

9. Encourage them to speak with a mental health professional.

Finally, if they haven’t already, or refuse, keep encouraging them to talk to a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist. You don’t want to be too forceful, but you should reiterate your concerns. And, remind them to not hesitate when they need to talk to someone when it’s an emergency or they’re having problems with things like their medication.

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