How to Support a Loved One When They're Struggling With Their Health


It’s time to start a difficult conversation — perhaps discussing a serious illness, the possibility of death, addressing an unspoken addiction issue, acknowledging or exploring a loved one’s experience with depression, anxiety or grief. Where to begin?

1. Lead With Empathy

Table how you feel it about it — how does she/he feel about it? What might she/he be thinking or experiencing as a result of this situation? What areas of her/his life are being impacted – physically, emotionally, professionally, interpersonally?

Sometimes it’s unclear why someone might respond in a certain way (and might even hurt you in the process), but if you can approach the issue with empathy and understand that in most cases it actually has very little to do with you — empathy often becomes a whole lot easier.

Regardless of how it might be manifesting itself, keep in mind that your loved one is often just seeking basic things like love, acceptance and self-esteem, and trying to cope with (or avoid) all of the fun demons we share (e.g. fear, pain, ego, guilt, shame, embarrassment, etc.).

2. Ask the Simple Questions

It’s a pretty common myth that people will bring up something if they want to talk about it. In reality, people are often desperate to talk about their problems, but they don’t want to burden someone who is too busy or doesn’t actually care. So it’s up to you to ask the questions and demonstrate you actually care.

How are you feeling today? Do you want to talk about it? How can i help?

It may take time, but keep asking and creating the space so they feel comfortable and have an outlet when they’re ready.

3. Show Up, Consistently

Whether it’s in person, a card, a call, text, email, etc. — check in, and be consistent. This can continue to demonstrate how much you care, so your loved one trusts that you’ll actually be there when they do decide to open up or lean on you.

4. Walk the Walk

When they do reach out and ask for help — you better be there! These vulnerable moments (and the trust you’ve been building) can be incredibly fragile, so this is your moment to drop everything and listen. really listen.

If it’s a call, this means finding a quiet spot and making the time. (When you’re vulnerable or in crisis it can be really hard to hear “I’ve got to get back to…” or “so and so is waiting for me” that may amplify someone else’s loneliness or your more important priorities.)

If you can physically show up, show up! (PRO TIP: bring a cookie or a coffee or something — anything — that may bring some instant comfort and reinforce your commitment to helping someone power through something difficult.)

5. Be Prepared to Help Them Take the Next Step

At the end of the day, there is only so much we can personally do to support someone who needs professional help — and that’s OK. But so often we direct our loved ones toward therapy or rehab, without understanding the hurdles that prevent so many people from actually getting the help they need. If you’re serious about getting your loved one in professional care, here are some important considerations to help them take the next step…

Getting Effective Help for a Loved One:

1. Readiness

Is she/he really committed to getting help? the hard truth is that it doesn’t matter how good your therapist or program is if your loved one isn’t ready to do the emotional work. Further, your loved one (and you) need to be prepared that it’s going to be a process — it might take several different tries to find a therapist that’s a good fit. it might take several different rehab programs. All parties should be aware of this and try not to be discouraged when attempt one or two isn’t the “cure-all” you were both hoping for. This doesn’t mean the right help isn’t out there, but you do have to be committed to the process and have a plan or alternative(s) to try next so you’re not discouraged by any initial “failures.”

2. Treatment/Provider Type

What kind of help does she/he need? for better or worse, there are so many options — from the actual therapy structure (in person, phone, video call, text, inpatient, outpatient, etc.) to the therapy format (individual, couples, family, group, etc.), the type of provider (MFT, MSW, PhD, PsyD, MD) and the therapy theory he/she practices or specializes in (psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral, etc.). Some other important considerations may include spiritual/religious affiliation, comfortability with a male vs. female provider, etc.

Don’t let the breadth of options overwhelm you, but do consider them as you navigate the sea of resources available to you. Ask your loved one about her/his preferred format, do a little research and present some options to help narrow down the possibilities and identify the most relevant starting point. You don’t have to have all the answers, but doing some leg work here early on can definitely help expedite your journey to effective treatment (and save some money along the way).

3. Finances

So often the financial part is overlooked in our well-meaning pushes for people to get help, but the reality is that therapy and rehab programs can be really expensive. In most cases, people in crisis are not in the best headspace to be doing insurance research — this could be a really great opportunity for you to step up and offer to make some calls to find out what types of therapy or treatment is within coverage, or what the price tags look like without coverage. Psychology Today has a great little tool to help you search based on insurance type, (and other things like geography, treatment type, etc.).

Knowing this is going to be a long-term process, it may also be really helpful to sit down and help your loved one budget their mental health into her/his life. what may seem manageable up front, may turn out to be an unsustainable expense that leads to brief, ineffective treatment. Try to find care that comes at a price that will allow for long-term care.

4. Logistics

In these fragile moments, small barriers can feel really big and discouraging. Help your loved one circumvent any immediate logistical challenges — do they need help making the initial intake/screening call to get an appointment? Do they need a ride? Childcare? Try to be proactive in anticipating these roadblocks, and try to make starting treatment easy (or at least feasible!).

5. Accountability

Once you’ve gotten her/him in the door, keep checking in to see how it’s going (and if she/he is keeping up with it!). Sometimes setting a couple future dates on the calendar can be really helpful. This will hold your loved one accountable and also send a big message — that you’re in this together and you’re still going to be there to support her/him come week/month/year two, three, four, of this journey.

Sound like a lot of work? Not going to sugar coat it — it is. But your loved one matters, and if you’re both ready and committed to making it happen, it can and does happen. We are all rooting for you (both of you!).

Ready to get started? Thoughtful Human offers Supportive Card Series to help you show your continued support and create the space for conversation over time, specifically within challenging relationships and life circumstances. From cancer to addiction, grief, depression, strained family relationships and beyond, Thoughtful Human card series offer simple, honest sentiments to communicate how much you care. They’re also super sustainable — all cards are printed on seed paper that can be planted to grow wildflowers!

Looking for professional help? Check out Thoughtful Human’s growing resource directory. We welcome your thoughts, feedback, suggestions, and stories — share with us anytime at [email protected] or on social at @thoughtfulhuman.

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This piece was originally published on Thoughtful Human.

Lead image via contributor


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