Helping Someone with a Mental Illness   

Caring for someone you love who is sick or disabled is never easy. When the illness affects your loved one's state of mind, the demands placed on you can be even more difficult.

Mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar or anxiety disorders are biological in nature. They are not a lifestyle choice. This means that they directly affect brain function. This makes it hard or impossible for the person to think, reason, feel, or relate to others in a predictable, normal way. This can strain relationships with family and friends. Efforts to help may be met with no interest, a dismissive attitude, or with anger or suspicion.

Nature, not nurture

Mental disorders are a leading cause of disability. They often occur during the teen years and young adulthood. If your loved one has been diagnosed, it helps to know that most mental illnesses respond well to treatment. Medicine, counseling, and other services reduce symptoms and help improve the quality of life for most people with mental illness.

As a person starts treatment and recovery, the support of family and friends is vital.  

Educate yourself

Mental illness is a medical disorder. It's not a character flaw or a sign of weakness. Learn as much as you can about your loved one's disorder. Try to understand the challenges he or she faces. Learn about the recommended treatment and how to get it. Remember that you can't be a therapist for your loved one. Professional help is key for the person to get better. Your loved one may need your help to accept that. 

Medicine issues

Support appropriate medicine use that is supervised by a provider knowledgeable in mental health treatment. Medicines for mental health illnesses have greatly improved. But side effects can still be bothersome for some people. In addition, some people refuse medicine because they don't think they are ill. Be respectful. But urge your loved one to take prescribed medicine. Many caregivers require medicine to be taken as a condition for housing someone with a mental illness. Also help your loved one keep therapy and healthcare appointments. And give feedback to healthcare providers who may need to adjust medicines.

Attitudes affected

Remember that the illness affects attitudes and beliefs. Your loved one may say, "I am a total failure" or "I'll never feel better." Remind them that these feelings are due to the illness. In cases where a person totally loses touch with reality, don't argue. Trying to talk the person out of delusions won't help. Correct treatment can restore realistic thinking. In the meantime, stay supportive and positive. But set limits and rules, especially if the person lives with you.

If your loved one lashes out or gets upset, stay calm and quiet. Try to find out what the problem is in a nonthreatening way. If a situation becomes dangerous, call someone who can help and get yourself to safety. Always take any threats of violence or suicide seriously.

Call or text 988

Call or text 988 if your loved one is talking about harming others or is suicidal, has a clear suicide plan, and has the means to carry the plan out. You will be connected to trained crisis counselors at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. An online chat option is also available at Lifeline is free and available 24/7. 988 counselors will work closely with 911 to get you the help you need. You can also call the Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255).

Create a support system

Use all available resources. This will make it easier to deal with the unpredictability of the illness. For example, keep a list of phone numbers of therapists, healthcare providers, family members, and friends who can help. Also include the number of a suicide crisis line, substance abuse center, or mental health hospital in case of a crisis. This will help you and your loved one know that there is a safety net of people and resources available at all times. It will also keep the burden of care from being completely on your shoulders.

Find support for yourself. It's important for you to live your own life as much as possible. And to take time for yourself and your interests. Your needs are important. It also helps to get support from others in the same situation.

For help with resources, visit:

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Paul Ballas MD
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2021
© 2000-2023 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.