6 Ways to Support a Loved One With Mental Illness

6 Ways to Support a Loved One With Mental Illness

Our understanding of mental illness has come a long way in recent years. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 43.7 million Americans age 18 or older (18.6 percent of the population) currently suffer from a diagnosable form of a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder (excluding developmental and substance abuse disorders). Symptoms may range from mild to moderate to so severe that they interfere with or limit regular, everyday activities.

So while we’re more aware than ever of these conditions, many people still don’t quite know how to respond when a friend or family member struggles with them. Here are six ways to demonstrate your support and care.

1. Educate Yourself
Unlike most diseases, mental illness does not have a clear-cut diagnosis. In the absence of a blood test to confirm results, we can only rely on reported symptoms. Because of this, we must make ourselves aware of what mental illness looks like. Here is a brief overview of some of the most prevalent kinds of mental illness and symptoms that accompany them.

Onset: Varies widely. Even young children can experience depression. It may stem from a combination of genetic, environmental and psychological factors. One type is post-partum depression.


  • Feelings of irritability and anxiety
  • Persistent feelings of sadness
  • Loss of interest in things that once brought joy
  • Inability to perform daily activities, such as going to work or even getting dressed
  • Thoughts of suicide

Bipolar Disorder
Onset: Typically starts in late adolescence or early adulthood; there are three main types of bipolar disorder.


  • Unpredictable mood swings that alternate between an extreme high (mania) and an extreme low (depression)
  • Excessive happiness, restlessness and increased energy
  • Pressured speech (fast, nonstop, almost driven)
  • Reckless behavior or thoughts (such as engaging in high-risk sexual behavior or impulsively spending lots of money) 

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD):
Onset: Obsessive-compulsive disorder usually starts in childhood or the teen years; most are diagnosed at around age 19.


  • Obsessions and excessive fears, such as a fear of being contaminated by dirt and germs
  • Need to have things in a particular order; exactness and symmetry
  • Ritual behaviors (such as repeatedly checking to see if a door is locked)
  • Fears and needs that interfere with social interactions, relationships and peace of mind 

2. Lean Forward
It’s natural to feel unsure or even uncomfortable concerning your love one’s mental illness once it’s been diagnosed. But that person needs you now more than ever. Don’t pull back. Lean forward. Let the individual know that you love and care for him or her. If you’re not sure how to approach the subject, say something like, “How comfortable are you talking about this?” It’s okay to be honest and say, “I don’t know how to talk about this, but I want you to know that I love you.” Your support at this time is crucial for your loved one to get through this painful experience.

3. Encourage Treatment
If someone you know is showing characteristics of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or any other mental illness, encourage him or her to seek treatment. It begins with an evaluation from a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist. That healthcare provider will then make a diagnosis and guide the individual through treatment, which may include medication and therapy.

4. Have Realistic Expectations
Navigating the ups and downs of mental illness is a long, bumpy road. Your loved one may not be able to function socially or even work. While it can be discouraging to witness diminished productivity and liveliness in your friend or family member, remember that he or she is just as (if not more) discouraged as well. Having realistic expectations for your loved one’s treatment and progress makes the situation more manageable.

5. Balance Respect with Limits
While it’s important to continue to support your loved one, you can’t neglect your own needs or the needs of others involved. Some conditions can bring a component of aggression or even abuse. You must protect those involved, including yourself. It’s not always easy to balance the two, but try to maintain a healthy balance between support for your loved one and your own personal boundaries.

6. Reach Out for Support
You as a caregiver have needs, too. In appropriate, discreet ways, reach out to your family, friends and church community, if you’re a member of one. You don’t need to carry this burden alone. There are also support groups and professionals to help you in the process. Remember that the stronger that you are, the stronger you can be for your loved one.

Medically reviewed in December 2019.

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