What You Can Do If You Are Worried About Loved One’s Mental Health? How to Help (What to Say)

In 30 seconds…

We all go through stressful events from to time that can change our normal behaviour. Short-term changes to behaviour are common. We may feel more stressed, angry or sad. These feelings are not always a sign of mental problems.

But changes in behaviour can be a sign that your relative is developing a mental illness. You may notice that they start to behave differently. You may see a change over a short time or over a number of months.

You know how you would take care of them if they had a cold or flu, but what do you do for a mental illness? Like any other health problem, someone with a mental illness needs extra love and support. You may not be able to see the illness, but it doesn’t mean that you’re powerless to help.

When you’re concerned about a friend’s or loved one’s mental health, you may think, “I should mind my own business.” But under the right circumstances, you can do a lot of good by reaching out.

1. Know the warning signs of mental health problems

Pay attention. It is possible to spot signs that someone might be going through a difficult time. For example, withdrawal from social interaction, unusual problems functioning at school, work or social activities or dramatic changes in sleep and appetite are possible signs. See more on Warning Signs of Mental Illness. Someone exhibiting these signs or having these experiences does not necessarily mean the person has a mental health problem, the symptoms could also be related to other issues or problems. But following up with an evaluation from a medical professional could help address any problems and prevent more serious symptoms from developing.

2. Getting started, approaching the issue

One of the hardest and most important steps may be just starting the conversation. You do not have to be an expert or to have the answers. Express your concern and willingness to listen and be there for the person. Don’t be afraid to talk about it. Reassure them that you care about them and are there for them. Use “I” statements. For example, use “I am worried about you…,” “I would like you to consider talking with a counselor….” rather than “You are….” or “You should….”

Try to show patience and caring and try not to be judgmental of their thoughts and actions. Listen; don’t disregard or challenge the person’s feelings.

Encourage them to talk with a mental health care provider or with their primary care provider if that would be more comfortable for them. For some people, it may be helpful to compare the situation to physical health concerns and how they would respond. For example, if there was a concern about diabetes or high blood pressure would they be likely to seek medical care?

Remind them that seeking help is a sign of strength.

3. Know how you can help

Getting help early is an important part of treating mental illness. Family and friends are often the first ones to notice that something is wrong. Some things we can do to help include:

  • Helping with medications, appointments and treatments: If you spend a lot of time around your loved ones, you can help them remember to take their medications. You may also be able to help tell a doctor why medications aren’t being taken as they should be. Similarly, you may be involved in reminding your loved one to do their counselling homework or use their light therapy treatment each morning, or reminding your loved one to make or keep appointments for treatment.
  • Supporting a healthy lifestyle: Families can also help with day-to-day factors such as finances, problem solving, housing, nutrition, recreation and exercise, and proper sleeping habits.
  • Providing emotional support: You can play an important role in helping someone who’s not feeling well feel less alone and ashamed. They are not to blame for their illness, but they may feel that they are, or may be getting that message from others. You can help encourage hope.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask about self-harm or suicide

Many people are reluctant to directly ask someone whether they have thought about harming themselves. They may be worried about causing offense or putting the thought into that person’s head. Or they’re afraid they won’t know what to do if the answer is yes.

Research, however, has shown that asking about self-harm or suicide doesn’t increase risk. “In fact, especially if you say, ‘I’m just concerned about you, I want to make sure you’re doing okay,’ that’s actually a signal to them that you really care,” and that you are someone they can turn to for support.

Explain why you’re concerned — for instance, telling people you noticed that their mood has changed and that they’re not using social media anymore.

Not only are you asking the question, which is an incredibly rewarding thing to do, you’re nothing, ‘I’m paying attention to you. I’ve noticed. I’m concerned,’. And if people tell you they are having suicidal thoughts, let them know that you’re going to continue to support them during this time and you’re going to help them get assistance.

6. Stay connected, and follow up

There is a physical sense of, like, comfort, safety and security when someone’s feeling anxious and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s the person that is ultimately responsible for making sure I’m safe and secure, and they’re literally across the table’. There is something powerful with that.

Even if you can’t physically be with someone who is having a hard time, there are many ways to remind them that they still have strong connections to people who care. Beyond scheduling regular check-ins over phone or video, you can also offer support in more spontaneous ways, such as sending a random card or little gifts and trinkets. Anything to let people know that they’re on your mind. It is important to remember that you may be more capable of helping someone through a tough time than you realize.

There are certain things that, as a loved one, I can say to somebody that therapists can’t say or don’t say. And that is, ‘No matter what, I’ll always be there for you,’ or, ‘You mean so much to me,’ or, ‘I love you.’ Those are lifesaving words that only loved ones can say that are incredibly connecting and powerful for people who are feeling desperate and alone.

7. Expectations and Collaboration

It is important to have realistic expectations. Recovery is generally not a straight-forward process, there will likely be improvements and setbacks along the way. With permission of your family member you can work with their treatment team to help provide support.

Even if you feel your support and actions are not making a difference, they are likely making a difference for your friend or family member. Your loved one may be hurting and not clearly recognize what you’re doing or may not be able to express appreciation. But knowing you are there for them can be important in helping their recovery.

Good mental health is a lifelong goal

We tend to think about mental health only in the midst of a crisis. But our own mental health, and the mental health of those around us, should be a lifelong concern.

Many life events can be confusing, scary and overwhelming. Good mental health will see you through declining health, the loss of loved ones, natural disasters, societal turmoil and the many other challenges life can bring.

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