You might feel powerless, but there ARE ways you can help.
Watching a friend or family member struggle with a mental illness can be challenging. They may do or say things that concern you, or even confuse you. They might isolate from others, or reject your attempts to help. This may leave you feeling powerless, but the good news is, there are ways you can support someone with a mental illness.
Remember that mental illnesses are a disease of the brain. The biological changes in the brain can make it hard for someone to function as they normally would. To support someone with a mental illness, it’s crucial to have empathy and compassion for what they’re experiencing.
How to Support Someone with a Mental Illness
1. Remind them that help is available
Many people who are really struggling with a mental illness are avoiding asking for help. They may be afraid of the perceived stigma of going to therapy due to the myth that mental illnesses only happen to “weak” people. You can help reduce the stigma by talking positively about therapy. In fact, you could even help them start their search, which is often the most intimidating step for many people.
2. Offer to help them with everyday tasks
Some types of mental illnesses can cause low energy and fatigue. Your friend or family member may find it difficult to even get out of bed some days. If this is the case for your loved one, you can help by offering to:
- Walk their dog
- Help their child or younger sibling with homework
- Run errands
- Help them cook dinner (or bring them dinner)
- Take their cat to a vet appointment
Note that mental illnesses may make some people self-conscious of burdening others. If you ask them for ways to help, they might turn you down simply because they don’t know how much is “too much” to ask for. You might have better luck asking, “I’m running some errands—can I pick up anything for you?” as opposed to, “How can I help?”
3. Continue to invite them to things
People with mental illnesses tend to withdraw from others. Sometimes it’s because they don’t have the energy to go out and socialize. Other times it’s a defense mechanism to avoid any potential of rejection or embarrassment. They might worry that they are just a burden to their friends, or that their friends don't actually want them there.
Your loved one may turn down your offers more often than they accept them—but don’t stop asking.
4. Be a good listener
Resist the desire to give your loved one a bunch of advice (unless they ask for it). Often, they just want to feel heard and understood. Give them a comfortable space to talk, and ask questions. Good questions to ask include:
- What are you feeling?
- How long have you been feeling this way?
- It sounds like you’re feeling [emotion], is that right?
- What makes you feel better?
5. Ask how you can help them overcome treatment barriers
Choosing to start therapy can be a battle on its own. Still, people who decide to pursue it may still get stuck on barriers. This includes:
- Having the time for therapy, or a job that allows them to leave for therapy
- Finding a therapist who accepts their health insurance, if they even have health insurance
- Finding a therapist who has openings in their area
- Traveling to the appointment, if they don’t have a car
- Getting past the fear of going to the first session
For example, you can support them by helping with their search, or by giving them rides to their appointments.
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be perfect or have all the right things to say. There’s a lot of value in simply being there for your friend or family member who is struggling. Having a support system can really make all the difference.
- Talk about mental health: for friends and family members. Mentalhealth.gov, 2020. (Accessed on March 29, 2021)
- Helping a loved one cope with a mental illness. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. (Accessed on March 29, 2021)
- Tips for how to help a person with mental illness. National Alliance on Mental Illness. (Accessed on March 29, 2021)