Supporting a Friend or Family Member with a Mental Illness

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When someone you love has been diagnosed with a mental illness, you feel a mixture of emotions. Concern, compassion, disbelief, anger, relief, anxiety, grief, love, guilt … any and all of these emotions are understandable and normal. Mental illnesses are caused by many different factors that work together, such as genetics, biology, environment, and life experiences. Loved ones can play a big part in helping a person recover, work towards their goals, and stay well. Care and emotional support go a long way in recovery and well-being. So can practical help, like managing doctor’s appointments and other daily tasks. You can also play a part in helping a loved one maintain well-being. You can also help them see hope at a time when they feel it the least. Like any other health problem, someone with a mental illness needs extra love and support. You may not be able to see the illness, but it doesn’t mean that you’re powerless to help.

Download and print our Supporting a Loved One brochure.

Research confirms that support from family and friends is a key part of helping someone who is going through a mental illness. This support provides a network of practical and emotional help. These networks can be made up of parents, children, siblings, spouses or partners, extended families, close friends and others who care about us like neighbours, coworkers, coaches and teachers. Some people have larger networks than others, but most of us have at least a few people who are there for us when we need them. There are a number of major ways that family and friends can help in someone’s journey of recovery from a mental illness:

  • Knowing when something is wrong—or right:Getting help early is an important part of treating mental illness. Family and friends are often the first ones to notice that something is wrong. Finding a treatment that works is often a process of trial and error, so family members may also be the first to see signs of improvement.
    How do I do this? Learn more about the signs and symptoms of different mental illnesses. Also learn more about how treatments work so that you know what side effects you may see, when to look for improvements and which ones to look for first. A recent review found that when the family is educated about the illness, the rates of relapse in their loved ones were reduced by half in the first year.
  • Seeking help:Families and friends can be important advocates to help loved ones get through those hard, early stages of having a mental illness. They can help their loved one find out what treatment is best for them. They can also be key in letting professionals know what’s going on, filling in parts of the picture that the person who’s ill may not be well enough to describe on their own.
    How do I do this? Offer to make those first appointments with a family doctor to find out what’s wrong or accompany your loved one to the doctor—these steps can be hard if your loved one doesn’t have much energy or experiences problems with concentration. If you do accompany the person, work with them to write down any notes or questions either of you have in advance so that you cover all the major points. If your loved one wants to do it on their own, show them your support and ask them if there’s anything you could do to help. You can’t always prevent a mental health crisis from happening. If your loved one needs to go to hospital, try and encourage them to go on their own. It may be necessary in certain cases, but involuntary treatment can be complicated and traumatic for everyone.
  • Helping with medications, appointments and treatments: If you spend a lot of time around your loved ones, you can help them remember to take their medications. You may also be able to help tell a doctor why medications aren’t being taken as they should be. Similarly, you may be involved in reminding your loved one to do their counselling homework or use their light therapy treatment each morning, or reminding your loved one to make or keep appointments for treatment.
    How do I do this? If you notice that your loved one is having trouble taking their medication, you can encourage them to talk to their doctor or pharmacist. They can suggest ways to make pill taking easier. If there are other problems with taking medicine, such as side effects, encourage your loved one to write down their concerns and questions and talk to their doctor. If they don’t have a good relationship with their doctor, help them find a new one.
  • Supporting a healthy lifestyle:Families can also help with day-to-day factors such as finances, problem solving, housing, nutrition, recreation and exercise, and proper sleeping habits.
    How do I do this? Case managers and peer support workers at mental health centres in your community may be able to help with life skills training as well as connections to income and housing.
  • Providing emotional support:You can play an important role in helping someone who’s not feeling well feel less alone and ashamed. They are not to blame for their illness, but they may feel that they are, or may be getting that message from others. You can help encourage hope.
    How do I do this? Try to be as supportive, understanding and patient as possible. Taking care of an ill family member or friend can be stressful. Remember that you need emotional support, too. Consider joining a support group for family members of people with mental illness. There, you can connect with other people going through the same things and they can help you work through your own emotions. It’s very important to make sure you are taking care of your own mental health as well.

Some signs that a friend or family member may have a mental illness and could need your help are:

  • They suddenly no longer have interest in hobbies and other interests they used to love;
  • They seem to feel angry or sad for little or no reason;
  • They don’t seem to enjoy anything anymore;
  • They have told you about or seem to be hearing strange voices or having unsettling thoughts;
  • They seem emotionally numb, like they don’t feel anything anymore;
  • They used to be healthy, but now they’re always saying they feel a bit sick;
  • They eat a lot more or less than they used to;
  • Their sleep patterns have changed;
  • They seem to be anxious or terrified about situations or objects in life that seem normal to you and to others;
  • They’ve been missing more and more time from work or school;
  • They’ve been drinking heavily and/or using drugs to cope;
  • They are talking about taking their life or feeling hopeless;
  • They are avoiding their close friends and family members info sheets.

When someone you love is diagnosed with a mental illness, you may worry about their financial future. If they are unemployed or don’t make enough to support themself, they may qualify for income supports. Some programs are provincial or territorial, and others are national. Talk with a loved one’s care team, provincial or territorial services, or a local organization to see what’s available. Your bank can also help with tools like a Registered Disability Savings Plan. Mental illnesses can be barriers to good, affordable housing, but the right housing can give people freedom and independence. There are different kinds of housing options available with varying levels of supports. Contact the CMHA or other local mental health organizations to get more information on housing programs.

If your loved one experiences serious episodes that cause problems, it’s important to plan ahead for these problems. These plans—written during times of wellness—usually map out what will happen and who will be involved if a loved one starts to feel unwell. You may be included in a plan with your loved one’s care team, but you can make a plan just between you and your loved one, too. If you believe that a loved one is at risk of harming themselves or others and they won’t seek help, you may get a mental health assessment through your province’s or territory’s mental health laws. In general, these laws let a doctor, judge, police officer, or justice of the peace order an evaluation if a person meets certain criteria. While this can be a helpful tool in a crisis situation, it can also be difficult and traumatic for everyone involved. Ideally, a loved one should have a plan in place that seeks action before these emergency measures are necessary.

When a loved one experiences a mental illness, their care and support can take a lot of time and energy. But your own needs are just as important, too. If you aren’t well, it’s harder to help someone else regain wellness. Here are some tips to think about:

  • Accept your own feelings and know that you are not alone – It is natural to feel many different emotions when a loved one is diagnosed with a mental illness. Other people experience the same challenges and complicated mix of emotions, just like you. Let yourself feel whatever you need to feel.
  • Learn more – Take time to learn more about mental illnesses. This will give you a better understanding of your loved one’s experiences and help you see what they may be going through. You can find reliable information online, through provincial or territorial health services, and through community organizations.
  • Stay connected – Embarrassment, social stigma, and fear can stop many family members from seeking help when a loved one is diagnosed with a mental illness. But that can isolate you at a time when you need the most support from others. Talk to trusted friends and family and let them know what you’re experiencing. If you aren’t sure where to go, try connecting with a community organization.
  • Join a support group – Support groups are a good place to share your experiences, learn from others, and connect with people who understand what you’re going through. To find a local support group, contact a local community mental health organization like the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). CMHA has branches all over Canada that offer a range of services that can help.
  • Take time for yourself – If you are caring for a loved one, your responsibilities may use up your physical and emotional energy. It’s important to take time for yourself. It can help you recharge and give you a more balanced perspective toward any challenges you experience. Schedule opportunities that allow you to relax, have fun and get away so you can come back to your loved one with a healthier outlook. You can’t care for someone else if you haven’t cared for yourself first.
  • Seek help for yourself – Caring for a loved one who’s unwell can be stressful. Long periods of stress can lead to mental health or substance use problems. Seek help if you find your own well-being slipping, and encourage family members to seek help if they need it. Mental illness can also have a big impact on family relationships. It’s a good idea to seek counselling for the entire family.
  • Develop coping strategies for challenging behaviours – There may be times when a loved one shows strange or challenging behaviours that can make you feel confused, embarrassed, or scared. This can happen in public or in private.

Reach out for help

You and other close supporters may be the first to notice changes in a loved one’s mood, behaviour, self-care, or other area that shows their mental health may be worsening. This means you can help your loved one find the right help early. You can also contact the Canadian Mental Health Association – Calgary Region for more information at (403) 297-1700 or email: info@cmha.calgary.ab.ca.

A note on privacy Under Canadian law, an adult’s health care team can’t talk about medical information like a diagnosis or treatment in most situations without permission of the adult. This may seem frustrating at times, but these laws were designed to protect the rights of people who experience a mental illness. An open relationship with a loved one can go a long way in keeping everyone informed and supporting a loved one’s care choices.