It may be frightening to learn that someone you love is diagnosed with a mental illness. It’s not as simple as a cold or the flu, where you can bring them some soup and put on their favorite movie. Mental illness comes with a lot of questions and uncertainty. You want to support them and offer all of the help you can — but where do you start? 

Where to Begin 

Friends and family can have a significant impact on those dealing with mental illness. The data shows that an overwhelming number of people struggle with mental illnesses every day. The emotional support from a network of parents, siblings, partners, children, extended family members, coworkers, neighbors, and even coaches or teachers can have an immense effect on betterment. 

While everyone has different support systems, some of which are larger than others, it’s important to be there for the ones we love during these difficult times. 

Making a Note of Changes 

Friends and family typically see when things are “off” first. Early help or intervention is often the best defense against mental illness — which makes it important for those close to someone struggling to keep an eye out for notable changes in behavior or mood. Some of these may include: 

  • Sudden loss of interest in hobbies or things they used to love 
  • Feelings of sadness or anger for no reason 
  • Little to no enjoyment in anything or emotional numbness 
  • A drastic change in eating habits
  • A notable change in sleeping patterns 
  • Always saying they’re feeling sick when they’re typically healthy 
  • Missing lots of school or work 
  • Heavy drinking or drug use for coping 
  • They’ve expressed hearing voices or unsettling thoughts 
  • Anxiety or terror regarding normal objects or situations 
  • Voicing suicidal ideation 
  • Straying away from those they love (family and friends) 

Now, it’s important to note that changes like these could be from any number of things — but they could be the early signs of struggling with mental illness. 

Validation and Empathy Are Key 

One of the most difficult aspects of helping someone you love with mental illness is validating their experiences. It can be tough, as it may be making your life more challenging — but you can’t begin to imagine what it’s like for them. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can significantly impact relationships — but without validation and empathy, they won’t be able to make the progress you wish to see. 

If you’re unsure about how to help someone, that’s OK! You’re not a professional, and mental illness can be complex and difficult to understand. However, it’s less about trying to fix their struggles and more about validating their experiences. 

Let’s look at an example. 

“I’m not sure how to make things better, but I’m sorry you’re hurting, it sounds awful.” 

vs. 

“I understand that you’re going through a lot, but there are people out there going through far worse.” 

Sure, option number one doesn’t seem to offer any solutions or ways to reconstruct thinking — but it offers support without pulling the rug out from underneath someone. Option number two undermines their feelings and furthers the divide of understanding about their experiences compared with your own. Developing a positive mindset isn’t something we can force upon people; it’s something that needs to be learned and explored for yourself. 

You don’t want them to feel more alone than they already do, so it’s important to validate and empathize without trying to compare. We don’t have to agree with how someone feels about something, but we can acknowledge it. This brings them one step closer to feeling comfortable expressing how they feel and, eventually, moving on with the right help. 

Don’t Take Symptoms Personally 

Like any illness, mental illness has symptoms that can come and go depending on a wide range of factors. These symptoms can be terribly frightening for your loved one, but they may also manifest themselves in different ways that could impact you. 

Like sweating during the flu or coughing when someone has a cold, these are uncontrollable symptoms. However, unlike physical ailments, mental illness may present symptoms that we perceive as choices. For instance, fatigue is a symptom of a wide range of mental illnesses, and it can be difficult to combat. Perhaps your friend or loved one is struggling with an anxiety disorder or depression and can’t seem to focus — which may lead to agitated reactions towards you. 

It’s not personal, and taking offense to uncontrollable feelings may isolate them in the long run. 

There’s No Timetable for Mental Illness 

Unlike physical ailments that have comprehensive treatment plans with tangible timetables — mental illness doesn’t have a timeframe. In fact, many mental illnesses come and go for years and years — so it’s important to understand that things aren’t going to go away in a few short weeks or months. 

You’re there to help them through the process, however long that may be. Love isn’t always easy — and mental illness can be a true test of that. Just like with someone struggling with a long-term or terminal illness, you’ll need to make that one-time decision that you’re willing to be by their side with all of this. It’s not uncommon for someone dealing with mental illness to feel like pushing those closest to them away or feel as if they’re toxic to their own relationships. Sometimes, choosing to be there and loving someone that doesn’t love themselves, especially during those early stages, can be the key to getting them on track to betterment. 

Finding the Right Help 

Advocating for your friend or loved one can be the saving grace they need during this difficult period of time. The early stages are oftentimes the most challenging, with so many questions and days of uncertainty — having a patient companion can be immensely beneficial. It starts with creating an environment of trust, acceptance, empathy, and healing.

You’re not there to save the day, as you’re unable to cure their mental illness — but there are some things you can help make easier on them. You may be able to assist in finding what treatment options are available. Those very first appointments can be terrifying and difficult to embark on — especially if they lack energy, motivation, or they’re having difficulty focusing. If they feel comfortable, accompany them to their very first appointment with a family doctor and write down questions or notes in advance. 

If they would rather do it on their own, fully support their decision and ask if there’s anything you can do to help in the meantime. Finding the right counselor can also be difficult, but if they’re looking for some help — you can look up trusted services near you. 

Severe situations may require hospitalization — which can be extremely difficult. While there’s plenty you can do to make their lives and experiences less stressful — you can’t always prevent a crisis from occurring. If you’re worried about their immediate well-being or the safety of others — it’s important to act. 

Remember to Take Care of Yourself 

Helping someone you know or love with mental illness requires a lot of love and patience. It’s not an easy task. One of the best ways you can support and advocate for your loved one’s progress is by also taking care of yourself. 
There will be days where you’re frustrated, drained, or even resentful — and these feelings will be exponentiated if you’re not giving yourself the attention you need to better help the ones you care for. So, be sure to focus on sleep, diet, and exercise at all times so that you’re better suited to be a shoulder to lean on. You can try our five things to try in the morning to start the day off right, or even share these with your loved one.

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