How can I help a loved one with a mental illness?

If someone you care about is experiencing mental illness, it can be hard to know how to help. You might find their behavior confusing or frustrating, and they might not always react to your help in the ways you’d expect. Here are a few things you can keep in mind to be as helpful as possible—while taking care of yourself as well.

Learn more about mental health

Educating yourself about mental health is a great place to start. There’s lots of information on this site and elsewhere on the Internet. (Make sure you’re looking at reliable, up-to-date sources.) If you know that your loved one has been diagnosed with a particular type of mental illness, look for information on that condition specifically, as well as on mental health in general.

In addition to information about what mental illness is and how it’s treated, look for stories from people who have experienced it themselves. Social media, online forums, and blogs are great places to learn more about what it’s actually like to live with mental illness.

Listen to your loved one’s experiences and needs

Each person experiences mental illness differently. The only way to really understand what your loved one is going through is to talk to them about it. If they’re not ready to have that conversation right away, be patient and let them know that you’re there when they’re ready.

Ask them what you can do to help. Sometimes that means just being there with them, or listening while they vent. Helping with small tasks like doing the dishes, going to the grocery store, or picking up children can make a big difference. Some people might find physical touch comforting. Or, they may just want some space.

Be careful about giving advice—wait until they ask for it, or at least check to make sure they’re open to it. You can make suggestions for treatments they could try, and you can do supportive things like taking them to their first therapy appointment or reminding them to take their meds. But don’t demand that they follow a specific treatment plan. Even if you think you know what they need, mental health treatment works best when the person who’s receiving it is on board.

If you’ve experienced mental illness yourself, you can share your experiences to help them open up and feel supported. But don’t assume that their experiences will be the same as yours.

Taking care of yourself

Providing support can take a lot out of you. If you’re not careful, you can get burned out. That’s not good for your mental health—and it also makes it harder to be there for your loved ones in the long term.

Be sure to make time for yourself. Take breaks. Do things you enjoy. Make sure you're not isolating yourself from other people. Acknowledge the feelings you’re having about the situation, and work through them. You might feel tired, resentful, or afraid. Those feelings provide information you can use to determine what kind of boundaries you need to set.

You may have to have a conversation with your loved one about your boundaries. Be open to compromise. Think of it as a team effort: you and your loved one are working together to figure out how best to support them while not getting burned out yourself. Once you’ve determined what your boundaries are going to be, stick to them.

Above all, just treat them like a person. Their mental illness is something they have; it doesn’t define who they are. Most of the things that you can do to support them are part of any other relationship: communication, compassion, and respect.

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