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5 Ways to Support a Loved One With a Mental Illness

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Chances are that you know someone who has a mental health condition. It could be a friend, family member, coworker or someone in your faith community. Even with these staggering numbers, we as a society do not receive enough formal education on talking about mental health issues or how to support a friend with a mental health issue. I myself live with a serious mental illness, and I am a family member of someone with a mental health issue, so I have both needed support and offered support to someone else. From both perspectives, I have learned what has been mutually effective for feeling supported and being confident in supporting someone else.

Here are five ways you can support a friend with a mental health condition.

1. Ask!

With any other issue, the best way to learn is to ask. The number one way you can support a friend is by asking what type of support they want or need. They may ask if you could send a text to check in every few days or if you have any availability to drop them off at a support group if needed. Society has come a long way in normalizing mental health, but asking for help can still feel intimidating or embarrassing for some people. You reaching out and offering support may make them feel more validated and accepted for.

Some suggestions for bringing this up include:

  • I know you’re going through a lot. What can I do to help?”
  • I care about you and want to help. What kind of support can I provide?”
  • I don’t know too much about [insert issue/diagnosis/symptom], but I want to support you in whatever way I can.”

Or you can continue with your everyday routine with your friend like bringing them a coffee or calling to discuss a book series you are both reading. Everyone is different in the support that helps them feel well, and stepping up and asking if you can help is like someone throwing out a lifesaver.

2. Respect privacy.

Again, we have come a long way with acknowledging that mental health is just as important as physical health. However, there is still a stigma surrounding mental health issues. While people pass “Get Well Soon” cards around the workplace for kind words when someone has surgery, we as a society are not yet at that point regarding mental health treatment.

It is crucial to respect the privacy of a friend who has a mental health issue or is engaged in treatment. Their personal information belongs to them, and they have the right to determine who knows about their mental health journey.

There is a difference between gossiping and needing to reach out to someone. If you feel like you need to talk about your friend’s situation, speak with someone who is not connected with your friend. Some examples could be a relative, friend in another social group, your own therapist, or a resource like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline, which will be discussed below. If you do discuss your friend’s situation, avoid using their name or identifying information.

3. Listen without judgment and avoid giving uninvited medical advice.

We all have feelings and opinions. These views sometimes affect how we think about our friend’s mental health and treatment. Mental illness can bring up issues on which we may have opinions: substance use treatment options, relationship issues, hospitalizations, medication and personal decisions. Despite our own perspectives, we need to do our best to listen without judgment and avoid giving advice that may interrupt our friend’s treatment plan. Yoga may be effective for some people, and antidepressants may be the answer for your friend. As someone who lives with my own mental health issues, I have been given unwanted treatment advice from countless people, friends and acquaintances, who did not know the complexity of my story. This often leads to shame and second-guessing. Sometimes the best thing we can do as a friend is to sit and listen. Caring about a friend may mean setting personal beliefs aside and just being there for them.

4. Take care of yourself.

Have you heard of the “oxygen mask theory?” It says we have to care for ourselves to best care for someone else. When supporting a friend with a mental illness, this means listening to yourself, setting appropriate boundaries and practicing self-care. What are signs that you are feeling overwhelmed? How do you know when you’re overly stressed? What do you do when you are sad or needing your own support? As hard as you may try to help your friend answer these questions, it is imperative that you can answer for yourself. Supporting a friend with a mental health issue can inherently expose you to difficult stories or feelings. Being able to step back and take time for yourself is a form of self-advocacy. Boundaries and self-care could include giving yourself a bedtime, turning your phone off, doing things that bring you joy,and communicating your feelings with people you trust. Self-care is not selfish, and you are deserving of the same support you would give your friend.

5. Learn about available resources.

There are countless resources available to address mental health crises, to talk to a peer, and to ask questions about symptoms or treatment. Familiarizing yourself with some of these resources can help you learn more about mental health and show your friend that you care about their well-being. I would recommend these starting points: The National Suicide Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) resources; treatment and health options from The Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration; and search through United For Global Mental Health for international mental health and crisis resources. I would recommend saving these resources on your phone. Having crisis resources is like having the calculator app on your phone; you never know when you’ll need it, but it’s good to have handy in case it could help.

In my own recovery, there were several times where I felt my identity was tied to my illness. It was the friends who treated me as the person I’ve always been who helped me gain back my confidence and self-esteem. You do not have to be a mental health professional, understand every symptom, agree with a treatment plan to be a good friend. You have the power to remind someone they are not alone in the battles they are facing.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Originally published: May 1, 2021
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