10 Ways to Help a Loved One Living With Mental Illness

Family support can make a world of difference to those living with mental illness. Learn how to help the loved one in your life with these simple and easy gestures.

By Kimberly Zapata

Millions of Americans live with mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately one in five adults have a mental health condition. This means that someone you know has probably received a diagnosis. Someone in your family may be living with depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, or PTSD. And while it can be difficult to see a loved one struggle, there are ways to help. It is possible to support someone living with mental illness.

“Empathy, compassion and kindness are critical elements in supporting someone living with mental illness,” says Peter Sadler, a licensed psychotherapist in California. “Too often in our society we want to push change onto those suffering around us, and although well intentioned, it often has the opposite impact. First, we must allow ourselves to truly see and feel their suffering, come alongside them in their place of pain, and let them know we are there to support them in their journey.” And Maggie Holland, a licensed mental health counselor with Choosing Therapy, agrees.

“The best thing that you can do for someone living with mental illness is to focus on being a consistent, non-judgmental, and patient presence,” says Holland. “So often we insert our own feelings—such as ‘I want my loved one to not be in so much pain’—that we encourage them to act like they’re fine even when they aren’t. This ends up being an additional thing that a struggling person has to juggle. Just be there for them, without demands or stipulations.”

Here are 10 ways to help someone living with mental illness, from talking about their condition to helping them find longterm care and support.

Learn About Their Condition

If your loved one tells you they are living with a particular illness, you should educate yourself as much as possible. “Knowledge gives you practical insight and understanding,” explains the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). It will help you understand how your loved one is feeling and what they may be going through. It may also help you better understand their prognosis.

“The more you understand about conditions, symptoms, possible treatments and what to expect, the better you will be able to support your loved one,” an article by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) adds.

Express Interest in Their Treatment Plan

Once you’ve educated yourself on their condition, you’ll want to play an active role in their treatment—if they will let you. Ask your family member about any medications they may take and/or therapy. Listen, without guilt, shame, judgement, or blame, and ask to be an active participant. Let them know you want to help in any way you can.

“Doctors and other medical providers cannot talk to family members without a patient’s permission, so ask your family member to arrange this permission,” explains NAMI. “Talk to the medical team about what to expect from the treatment plan. In particular, ask about possible side effects of medication. Find out how to call the provider if you notice behavioral or emotional changes you’re concerned about.”

Talk to Them About How They Are Feeling

While asking your loved one how they are feeling may seem like a given, sometimes the most obvious questions are the ones we forget about. They are the ones we fail to ask. We may say “How was your day?” but not “How are you?” and though this may seem like a game of semantics, the shift in verbiage can change the context of the question entirely. When we ask about someone’s day, for example, we ask about places. Faces. Who we saw. How work was. But asking someone about themselves and how they are feeling moves the focus away from the superficial and to the the self. So be clear, concise, and ask.

Listen, Without Judgement or Shame

Once you’ve asked someone how they are, it is important to listen—without shame or stigma. “Be patient, non-judgmental, and open to conversation,” says Jeff Temple, a licensed psychologist and University of Texas Medical Branch professor. You should be responsive and make eye contact. Hear them out, no matter what. And offer empathy. Say things like “that must be hard.”

“You don’t have to be an expert to know someone is struggling,” Dr. Temple adds. “You just must be a caring person who wants to help. This shows the person that they can lean on you for support and rely on you when they’re struggling.”

Show Up

Haley Neidich, LCSW, a psychotherapist in Florida and Connecticut says that if people are having a truly hard time or depressed, they might make excuses and try to avoid spending time in a social setting. “If you know someone you love is struggling, tell them that you’re stopping by to drop off dinner from their favorite takeout place and let them decide whether they want you to stay and visit or not. Showing up for them even when they don’t know how to ask is an important way to be there.”

Truly “See” Them

“Most people aren’t listened to,” points out caregiver coach Marisa Pasquini. “They aren’t seen and acknowledged. It’s hard to put a value on giving the gift of presence to another. I was talking to a caregiver the other day who was so frustrated, tired, and trying to put on a happy face. As she shared more deeply, she wept. The gift of presence allowed her to express her deeper feelings and come up with ideas for self-care.”

Stephanie Parmely, Ph.D., a psychologist in Folsom, California, agrees, explaining, “The notion of feeling ‘seen’ triggers mirror neurons in our brains that produce serotonin and dopamine. People feel good when someone validates them because it’s a form of mirroring. And while it’s not always important to provide advice, validation should always come before giving suggestions.”

Remind Them of Their Favorite Things

Hannah Nelson Smith from New York explained that after her sister lost her partner, she was devastated to see her in such emotional and physical pain. “As a way to bring some sense of happiness back into her life, I started jotting down things I knew made her happy,” noted Smith. “Just small notes all over a piece of paper in different colors. I wrote down things like: hot cocoa on a snowy day, fresh sheets, a run after a long day, our dad’s contagious laugh, traveling and new adventures, bananas and peanut butter, puppies and llamas, Saturday mornings, rainbows after a storm, snuggling with friends during a good movie, etc.”

Later, Smith framed the notes so she could look at all of them collectively when she was feeling down—and, as it turned out, her sister said the thoughtful project helped her get through truly dark moments.

Support Them With the Basics, Like Rides to Appointments

Small gestures go a long way—particularly in times of crisis. If your loved one is struggling, offer to drive them to their appointments, or pick up their medication. Asking them to do “normal” things is also nice, even if you know they will say no.

“People who struggle with mental illness often just want to be ‘normal,'” says Kendall Phillips, a licensed professional counselor in Hillside, New Jersey. “Try to have consistent structure and routine and encourage social interactions.” Watch a movie with them, go on a walk, or connect over a cup of coffee.

Help Them Make a Crisis Plan

While your loved one may not need (or ever use) a crisis plan, having one in place is crucial. It’s like a fire safety plan but for your health. No one wants to worry about the possibility of a crisis, but they do happen,” explains NAMI. “[These plans can] be very helpful for your loved one… [and can help them] avoid a crisis.

To make a crisis plan, or wellness recovery action plan, you’ll want to gather the following information:

  • Important phone numbers, including those of your loved one’s psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, and/or counselor
  • The names and contact information of family members who your loved one deems helpful
  • Support line information, including details on how to contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Crisis Text Line
  • Addresses to nearby clinics and emergency rooms
  • A list of triggers
  • A list of solutions, or things which have worked in the past
  • Medication history
  • Suicide attempt history
  • Drug use history
  • Your loved ones official diagnosis

Find Support

Finally, if your loved one is struggling mentally and/or emotionally, you should help them find support. “Having a support system is important,” says Dr. Temple. One’s support system can include many people, from psychologists and psychiatrists to like-minded peers. However, it is important they have (and get) help.

“You should encourage (and help) the person in your life to find help,” says Dr. Temple. “Depending on the individual’s resources and available providers in the area, this can be tricky and requires patience and persistence. Luckily, there are websites like nami.org that can guide you through the process.” There’s also you. Having an extra ear or hand can make all the difference.