Supporting and talking to a loved one with mental illness can make a world of difference. To have a meaningful conversation, find a safe place where your loved one can open up to you about their struggles. As you talk, express your support and commitment to their mental health while allowing them to guide the discussion. If they would like your help, you can reach out to professionals and groups for more information. It is important to stay in contact with your loved one, even after having a talk with them. Even short conversations can have a large impact.
EditStarting the Conversation
- Find a way to talk privately. The best place to have a conversation is in a private, quiet area. Your loved one should feel secure and comfortable in this space. You might have the conversation while talking a walk, or you might sit them down in your living room, kitchen, or bedroom.
- Minimize distractions as much as possible. Turn off the TV and music. If there are other people in the room, ask them if they would mind giving you some privacy.
- Ask them how they are feeling. The first question you ask should be about their emotional state. A simple and sincere “How are you?” can encourage them to start talking.
- If that is too broad, or they respond with a one-word answer like “Fine,” then you may want to be a bit more specific. You can say something like, “I’ve noticed that you’ve seem kind of anxious lately. Can you tell me what is concerning you?”
- If they have a diagnosed mental illness, you might say, “I just wanted to check in to see how you are doing. What kind of experiences have you been having at work/home/school?”
- If you suspect a mental illness but they have not been diagnosed, don’t be afraid to engage them in conversation. Just make sure you are speaking from a place of compassion.
- State your concerns. If your loved one has demonstrated specific, troubling behaviors, such as increased substance use or anger issues, you might want to state these at the outset. Be gentle, and do not accuse the other person.
- Some signs of mental illness include anxiety, detachment, changes in sleeping or eating habits, substance abuse, social withdrawal, self-harm, inability to concentrate, poor hygiene, lack of grooming, mood fluctuations, or an inability to complete basic daily tasks.
- Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements to soften what you are saying. Instead of saying, “You seem really anti-social lately,” you might say, “I have noticed that you’re not coming out of your room very often. Is everything ok?”
- Ask if they want to talk. It can be very difficult for people to discuss their mental illness. If they are not ready to talk, do not push them. Let them know that you are available to talk whenever they need it. Just by expressing your willingness to support them, you may be helping them already.
- You can say, “You say that you have been really depressed lately. Do you want to talk about it?”
- If they say that they do not want to talk, you should say, “That’s ok. Just know that I am here for you when you need it. If you ever do want to talk, let me know.”
- Avoid arguing. Some people may deny that they have a problem. Others may resist your attempts to help. Do not argue with your loved one if they do not cooperate with your attempts to talk. Doing so will only drive them away. Instead, calmly reaffirm your commitment to them.
- If they insist that there is not a problem, you might say, “I’m glad to hear it, but if there ever is a problem, you can come to me.”
- If they have a substance abuse problem, suicidal tendencies, or violent outbursts, you may need to contact a professional to intervene. If they are a possible threat to themselves or others, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency department for a mental health evaluation.
- Listen. Once you have started the conversation, your primary role will be to listen to your loved one. Let them talk about their feelings. Try not to interrupt too often, even if it is to offer an encouraging word. It is best to let them say everything that they have to say.
- When you do speak up, try to offer support by repeating their feelings back to them. This will express that you are listening to them and that you understand how they feel. You might say, “I hear that you are really anxious about the future.”
- Show that you care. Reaffirm to your loved one that you care for them. Tell them that you are there for them no matter what. This simple gesture will help them understand that they have a support system.
- You might say, “I want you to know that I will always be here for you. Whatever you need, you can let me know.”
- Take their concerns seriously. Avoid telling your loved one that their problems are temporary or that they can just snap out of it. Mental illness can be very difficult to treat. Instead, tell them that you believe their concerns.
- You might say, “I understand that you are feeling hopeless. I will do what I can to help you.”
- Mental illness is complicated, and it cannot be solved by diet, exercise, meditation, or medication alone. While you can gently encourage exercise or diet, do not focus on these as cures. For example, you should not say, “You should take vitamins. That will make you feel better.”
- Ask if they are thinking of suicide. If you are worried that your loved one might be thinking about suicide, you should ask them if they are thinking of hurting themselves. Do not be afraid to ask, thinking that directly asking them will “plant” the idea in their head. Take any indication of suicidal behavior seriously.
- Some signs of suicidal behavior include giving away possessions, saying goodbye to people, making a plan, talking about how they are a burden on others, talking about giving up, or talking about having no reason to live.
- You might ask, “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?”
- If they say something like “I can’t go on anymore,” or “It’s just too much to bear,” you might ask directly, “Are you thinking of suicide?”
- Call emergency services (911 in the US) or take your loved one to a mental health psychiatric facility (this includes the ER) immediately for assessment.
EditFinding Professional Help
- Ask them if they want help. Before you attempt to find counseling or professional support for your loved one, you should make sure that they want your assistance. Ask them if they would like you to help them get therapy or other services.
- You might start by asking them what type of help they want. For example, you might say, “How do you want to approach this issue?”
- If they are not already in counseling, you might say, “Do you think you should get therapy? Would you like me to help you find a good therapist?”
- If they are already in therapy or if they are resistant to the idea of therapy, you might say, “What can I do to help you?”
- If they say that they do not want your help, try to avoid pushing the issue. If they are not in any danger to themselves, you might revisit the issue in a month or two. If you believe that they are suicidal, do not try to negotiate with them: contact a professional immediately or call 911.
- Research their condition. If they have a diagnosed mental illness, you should try to find out as much as you can about it so you that you can learn specific techniques for talking to them in the future. Try not to use this information to preach potential cures at them. Rather, learn about their illness so that you can better understand their struggle.
- You might want to look up what type of therapist or counseling they need to help you find a professional in your area.
- Search for a mental health professional. If they have expressed that they would like your help in getting therapy, you can look for mental health services, counseling, therapy, and crisis centers in your area. If the loved one is under the age of 18, you may be responsible for finding them this help.
- Find a support group. Support groups can give your loved one a safe space to discuss their issues with others who have the same illness. Encourage them to find a group in your area where they can reach out to others. If there are none in your area, you might look for an online group.
- Support groups are often run by hospitals, therapists, or national associations like the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, or Mental Health America.
- If your loved one is reluctant to go to a meeting, you might ask, “Would it help if I went with you?”
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness runs local family support groups. If you are struggling with your loved one’s mental health, you may want to join one of these support groups yourself.
- Get immediate help if they are suicidal. If your loved one is talking about death or suicide, they may need immediate help. Call 911 or a crisis line or visit a crisis center or the emergency room. If your loved one has a therapist or doctor, contact them. They can talk you through appropriate methods for helping your loved one.
- In the US, call the National Suicide Hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Even if your loved one doesn’t want to talk, you can talk to a trained professional about the best way to help.
- In the UK, you can call Samaritans at 08457 90 90 90.
- In Australia, call Lifeline Australia at 13 11 14.
- The International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) can connect you to crisis centers and hotlines in your country.
- If they have made an attempt, call 911 immediately.
EditProviding Long-Term Support
- Give them time. It can take a long time to recover, and some people may be living with mental illness for their entire life. Allow your loved one time to adjust to therapy, medication, or other treatments. Do not expect them to immediately improve.
- You can tell your loved one, “I know that you need time and space. Let me know when you need me.”
- Talk when they need it. If your loved one ever approaches you with a problem, sit down and talk to them again. Listen to their worries, and take their concerns seriously. By actually fulfilling your promise to be there for them, you will be helping them more than you know.
- If they ask you to talk, you can say, “Of course. I am always here for you.”
- If your loved one needs to talk during a time that is bad for you, you might ask, “Is everything ok? Do you need to talk now or can I call you after work?”
- Check in periodically. A simple text message, email, or phone call can mean the world to someone. Even if they are reluctant to respond, keep trying to reach out to your loved one.
- You might send a text message that says, “How are you today?”
- Sending an email or private message on social media can show that you care. You might say, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you lately. What’s up?”
- If they live far away, arrange video calls or phone dates so that you can chat.
- Take care of yourself. Caring for a loved one with mental illness can be a big burden. It is important you care for your own physical and mental health. This will also benefit your loved one as it will ensure that you have the energy and capability to be there for them.
- Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and sleeping seven to nine hours a day can go a long way in reducing your own stress.
- Look for warning signs. If your loved one shows signs of suicide, substance abuse, or anti-social behavior, you might need to get outside help. Stay in touch with them, and watch for any troubling signs that their mental illness has worsened.
- If your loved one mentions that they want to die, they may be suicidal. Other common warning signs include statements like, “I just want it all to end,” “the world would be better without me,” “I wish I hadn’t been born,” or “I’d be better off dead than alive.”
- If they are withdrawing from their normal activities, it might be a sign that they need more help. Similarly, an increase in alcohol or drug use may indicate that their problem is worsening.
- A sudden sense of calm after a long depressive episode may indicate that they have decided to commit suicide.
- If they are threatening to hurt themselves or others, call 911 immediately.
- Allow them to guide the discussion. Just listening can provide great support.
- You can gently encourage exercise, creative projects, and a good diet, but do not suggest these as miracle cures. The best help your loved one can get is professional counseling.
- If your loved one is willing, you can ask them if you can talk to their medical team so that you are informed about their treatment plan.
- If their mental illness is becoming serious, you may want to create a crisis plan. This will ensure that you are prepared if they attempt to commit suicide or if they slide into self-destructive behavior, like drinking, drug abuse, or unprotected sex.
- Always take suicidal talk seriously. Even if they’re just joking about death, they may be seriously considering it.
- If you feel overwhelmed or depressed yourself, do not be afraid to reach out to professional help. You do not have to shoulder the burden yourself.
- Avoid blaming yourself for your loved one’s mental illness. There is nothing you could do to prevent it, but you can provide support, love, and care to them now.