I think someone I care about has a mental illness

It’s hard to bring up concerns about someone else’s mental health. If something about their words or behavior makes you think they might be struggling with mental illness, it can put you in an awkward situation. You care about them, but you don’t want to make them uncomfortable. What can you do?

What are they saying or doing that’s concerning to you?

It’s easy to jump to conclusions about which mental illness they might be experiencing. The problem is, you don’t really know for sure. You’re probably not a doctor or a therapist—and even if you are, you’re too close to the situation to diagnose a friend or family member.

Instead, focus on the words and behaviors that you’re concerned about. Say something like, “Hey—when you said you wished you were dead… It just made me wonder if you’re okay. Do you really feel that way?” Or, “Hey, I noticed you’ve been missing class a lot lately. I wanted to check in and see what’s going on.”

By focusing on their words and behaviors, you avoid labeling the other person. The focus is on your observations, and your feelings about them. That’s easier for another person to accept. It helps them trust you not to be judgmental if they decide to open up.

It may turn out that they don’t actually have a diagnosable mental illness. That doesn’t mean your concerns aren’t valid. Not everyone has a mental illness—but everyone does have mental health. And everyone’s mental health can improve.

Be supportive and encouraging

If they choose to open up to you, your first job is just to be there for them and listen. What they tell you may be uncomfortable or even scary. But by listening to it without judgment, you’re letting them know that it’s okay to feel that way—and it’s also okay to ask for help.

When it feels like they’re ready, it’s okay to make suggestions about seeking help. If they’re receptive to it, talking to a doctor or a therapist is a great place to start. They’ll either be able to diagnose them, or find refer them to someone who can. (If your loved one is resistant to seeing a professional, an easier ask is for them to take an online mental health screening. It’s not a diagnosis, but it’s a starting point to get them used to the idea.)

It’s important to make suggestions—not demands. Explain to them why you think seeking a particular kind of help would be helpful for them. Be supportive, too: offer to go with them to their first appointment, or look up information about mental health together.

Do what you can. Accept what you can’t.

They might not want to listen to your concerns. They may stay in denial about having a mental illness. They may refuse to seek treatment. Your instinct at this point might be to try and “save” them—to swoop in and take over. Most of the time, that’s going to backfire. Mental health treatments work best with the person receiving them is on board. And being too pushy can close them off to your help in the future. Let them follow their own path, even if they make choices along the way that frustrate you.

Of course, if their behavior is affecting you, you have a responsibility to take care of yourself as well. If the other person refuses to seek help and their behavior continues to negatively impact you or your relationship, it’s okay to set boundaries and take a step back. And if their behavior is putting them or someone else in danger, it’s okay to be a bit more forceful.

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