Support for loved ones
Support for loved ones
We're in this together
Be there for the ones you love.
There isn't a single 'right' way to respond when someone close to you is experiencing mental health issues. Family and friends can react in different ways and may feel concerned, scared, confused, distressed, helpless and sometimes even frustrated. It's hard to see someone you care about in pain and not seeming like themselves.
How serious is it?
Like any other health issue, mental health issues are very real and can be very serious for your loved one. They can impact on day-to-day functioning, reducing or completely disabling someone's ability to participate in normal day-to-day activities such as going to work and spending time with their children. Mental health issues can also severely impact on quality of life - imagine either no longer enjoying the things you normally would, or not being able to do the things you enjoy because you have become too unwell. Risk of self-harm, harm to others and suicide is present with some mental health conditions when symptoms are severe.
What your help can mean to someone
Support from friends and family is a key part of helping someone to recover from a mental health condition. Research confirms that it's beneficial to tap into a network for practical and emotional help. Your help makes a difference, even at times when it might not feel like it's the case.
How you feel, and what you can do
People with a mental health condition need extra love and support, just as they would with any other health condition. If you're experiencing fear, frustration or despondency about the mental health issues of someone close to you, it's a marker of your love for them - after all, if you didn't care for them, you wouldn't feel this way. Although a marker of love, the way we behave when we feel like this doesn't always create a supportive environment.
There are two important things to focus on when you're caring for someone with a mental health issue:
1. Providing a supportive, validating, empathic and help-seeking environment
2. Looking after yourself. It may seem counterintuitive, but looking after yourself improves your own emotional bandwidth and ability to give to someone else.
Creating an environment to support recovery
It can be hard to know what to do when supporting someone with a mental health issue. Educating yourself about mental health conditions is the foundation to providing the best possible care. Make a start by reading our education resources on mental health conditions here.
Educate yourself about mental health conditions.
Friends and family are usually the first ones to notice that something is not right. Knowing when something is going right, or going wrong, and acting early to help someone link in with professional care and support could mean that the severity of symptoms doesn't worsen, and they recover quicker. Wondering how you spot something early? Read up on the signs and symptoms of different mental health conditions here.
Follow treatment progress. Not everyone responds the same way to the same treatment - finding one that works can be a process of trial and error. Learn about how treatments work so that you know when to expect improvements, and what side effects may occur, and when. Friends and family may be the first to see signs of improvement, signs of someone struggling to stick with treatment, or signs that treatment isn't working.
Understand how treatments work and know what to expect.
Support them to connect with professional help. Family and friends are extremely important advocates for their loved ones. Navigating health systems isn't the easiest at the best of times, let alone when you don't have the same emotional or cognitive reserves that you'd normally have. You can help your loved one search for and find the right treatment, and help health professionals to understand your loved one's experience by filling in parts of the picture that they may be too unwell to describe on their own.
Advocate for your loved one, and help them connect in with the right care.
Help them with organising things. Some mental health issues can significantly impact on someone's concentration and ability to plan and organise - so supporting your loved one to remember appointments, medications, and treatments can be really helpful.
In cases where this kind of support creates conflict, you can help your loved one by suggesting that these challenges with self-care are shared with their GP or mental health professional.
Sometimes people have other reasons for missing appointments or treatments, such as treatment side-effects. Listen to your loved one's concerns, and suggest that they write down and share them with their GP. Memory can be impacted by some mental health conditions, or by the medications people take, so writing things down ensures important information is recalled and raised in medical appointments.
Offer to make first appointments for people.
Assist with transport where practicable.
Visual and verbal appointment and medication reminders help.
Be there, in the right dose. Accompanying someone with a mental health issue to appointments can be comforting and help people to take a step they might otherwise hesitate with. Offer to be there in medical appointments - especially if someone's energy is low or concentration is impacted due to their condition.
If your loved one wants to do it on their own, respect this and show them your support and ask them what the best thing is that you can do to help. Sometimes the best thing is not practical help, but simply listening and letting them know that you're there for them when they need it.
Accompany your loved one to appointments.
Step back if asked, but let them know you're there for them.
Take action when mental health crises happen. A mental health crisis is a signal to get immediate emergency support. You cant always prevent a mental health crisis from happening. If you're concerned that your loved one is at immediate risk, either contact 000 in Australia, or assist them to attend a hospital emergency department.
If your loved one needs emergency support, call 000.
Give emotional support. Validate, empathise and try not to judge. It's common to feel nervous about doing or saying the wrong thing, or to worry about not knowing what to say. When your loved one opens up to you, listen and remain curious about their experience. Show your curiosity and empathy by reflecting back to them what they are saying, and asking open-ended questions.
An example of an open-ended question is, "How are you feeling?" This kind of question invites people to tell you about their experience. A reflection, if they have said that they are feeling down, is, "I'm sorry to hear that you're feeling down." The statement is judgement free, lets them know you have been listening, and expresses concern. That's good stuff for someone in difficulty to hear from you.
It's not helpful to close the conversation off with statements like "Chin up, you should get over it." Although intended to be helpful, it can have the opposite effect, with people sometimes feeling judged and like their experience is being minimised. This may cause someone to shut down or withdraw.
Likewise, too much focus on giving advice can sometimes cause people to withdraw. If your loved one asks for less advice, know that although it may feel like you're doing less by simply listening, this is a vital step in helping someone to voice concerns and think the issues through for themself. Use open-ended questions to help them search for their own solutions. An example of this kind of supportive question is, "What are you thinking we should do next?" This can be very empowering for your loved one - you are helping them to help themself.
Listening can be a very powerful tool in helping someone.
Emotional support can help people feel less alone and reduce shame and self-judgement. It encourages hope and empowers people to take their next steps forward.
Learn about using open-ended questions and reflective statements when having supportive conversations.
Avoid statements which shut down conversation, or could unintentionally minimise someone's experience or create a sense of feeling judged.
Looking after yourself
Taking care of someone with a mental health issue can be stressful - keep in mind that you need emotional support too. Taking the time to care for yourself will prevent you from burning out.
If you're finding it difficult to manage strong emotions like fear, frustration or grief, or your emotions are spilling out in ways that negatively impact on others or yourself, you and your loved one might benefit from you seeking support from a mental health professional. It's very common for mental health professionals to support someone caring for someone else.
Support groups are another avenue to recharge your emotional batteries. You can connect with people sharing similar experiences, learn from each other, and work through emotions.
Taking care of yourself is part of taking care of someone else. Carers Australia have more information on being a carer and support groups.