How to help a loved one with mental illness

Cobblestone Counselling and Psychotherapy

If you have a loved one with a mental health issue, supporting them effectively can help them heal.

Maybe you’ve recently noticed that a family member or friend is struggling with their mental health. Perhaps they seem sad and have withdrawn from activities they once enjoyed. They might have mood swings. Or they’re worried and fearful.

Trying to reach out to a person who may have a mental health concern can seem overwhelming. You want to help, but what if you hurt someone’s feelings or invade their privacy? Or what if you’re wrong about your observations? According to Statistics Canada, about 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental illness during their lifetime.

There are ways to help and resources available. Knowing how to initiate a conversation is half the battle.

Symptoms of mental health disorders can include:

  • Feeling sad, having the blues, feeling down
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Excessive worrying
  • Having extreme mood changes
  • Withdrawing from friends and activities
  • Low-energy or feeling excessively tired
  • Sleep problems

If you’ve noticed these symptoms in a friend or loved one, consider reaching out. Dr. Valerie Legendre, Montreal psychologist and a senior mental health consultant at Sun Life, has six suggestions for how to approach the situation.

  1. Check in with your loved ones.

Mental illness is often invisible. If you’re worried about someone, give them a call or ask how they’re doing, Dr. Legendre says. Better yet, Canadian sports personality Jennifer Hedger suggests assuming everyone you interact with is dealing with something.


  1. Broach the subject carefully.

Starting a conversation about a person’s mental health requires tact, empathy and compassion. Begin by telling the person that you’re worried about them, Dr. Legendre suggests. “Mention your concerns, your observations,” she says. But don’t diagnose someone by making comments such as “I think you’re depressed.” Leave that to the specialists.

  1. Don’t assume you know what they’re going through.

If you’ve already struggled with your own mental health issues, you might be more sensitive to the symptoms in others. But don’t assume that a loved one is going through the same things you did. The symptoms might look the same, but the causes of mental illness are different, and so is the struggle. Keep the lines of communication open. Create trust by using “I” instead of “you” and being as neutral as possible, Dr. Legendre recommends. This will make space for the person to open up about their own struggles without feeling judged.

  1. Offer to help them connect with resources.

First, determine whether the person you’re trying to help can make a self-referral to a treatment centre. If they can, encourage them to do so. You can suggest the person visit their family doctor, or you can help them make that first appointment at an addiction or mental health centre, Dr. Legendre advises.

  1. Offer unconditional support.

“If a friend or loved one decides to seek treatment, support them,” Dr. Legendre says. “Treat them like your equal and avoid passing judgement.” Point out any positive changes you notice so they can see the progress they’re making towards recovery.

  1. Know when to take immediate action.

If you’re noticing an increase in symptoms or severity, don’t wait, Dr. Legendre says. “There are resources available to help people in a mental health crisis,” she says. If someone says they might harm themselves or others, call emergency services. It’s very important that they seek immediate help.

There are many ways to treat people who are struggling with their mental health, Dr. Legendre says. They can get help. “Having a support network is a very important factor in recovery. With love and support, they’ll know you’re by their side.”

Source: By Anna Sharratt

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