Mental Health Blogs

How to Help Someone with a Mental Illness

I talk to many people who want to help a person with a mental illness. Often the people they want to help are loved ones who have just been diagnosed with a mental illness and those who want to help feel powerless.

The “helpers” have a hard job, but let me just say, we love you for it.

You Are Powerless Over a Mental Illness

Let’s just start by recognizing that mental illness is a real illness and you can’t fix it any more than you can fix cancer. I appreciate that you want to I appreciate that you want to take the pain away, but please understand, you can’t. You need to accept that.

42-16474021You Can Be a Powerhouse of Support

That being said, you can have an extremely important role in helping us get better. Support and love are the best things in the world.

When someone is diagnosed they may feel defective, unlovable and like they will be abandoned. If you can stand by the person with love and support and with a reminder that you’re not going anywhere, that is a magnificent gift.

Supporting a Sick Person is Hard

It’s really tough to weather the storms of a mental illness. It’s tough for the person with the illness and it’s tough for those around them. We know it’s hard. That’s why it’s such an amazing gift to try to help.

What You Can Do to Support Someone with a Mental Illness

  1. Tell them you love them, support them and won’t leave them.
  2. Tell them that they are not broken and they are the person they have always been, but they just have an illness
  3. Learn about their illness. The amount of information available out there on any illness is daunting. If you can fill in some of the blanks and do some of the work, particularly in the beginning, that’s a great help. Plus it will give you insight into what they’re going through.
  4. Help them get treatment. Drive them to appointments. Make sure they have their medications. Make sure they are talking to their doctor or therapist.
  5. Check in. Make sure they are doing OK. Make sure they are following the treatment plan.
  6. Offer to take care of a chore. Offer to make dinner. Offer to vacuum. The smallest thing is wonderful.
  7. Ask the person what they need. We’re all different and what works for us is different so the person with a mental illness can tell you best what they need.

What You Need to Do for You

Remember, get help for yourself. It’s hard to be there for a sick person. It can be really hard on you. Get your own support. It’s OK to say you need help too.

Make sure you create some boundaries. If you do everything on the list you will fall over of exhaustion. Pick reasonable things you can do. No one can do it all.

Your Support is a Gift

Whatever you do, know that your support is a gift. We might not be able to tell you at this moment. We might be too wrapped up in our illness to tell you how wonderful you are. Other people would run, but you didn’t. Your support doesn’t have to be perfect to be amazing.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter or at the Bipolar Burble, her blog.

This entry was posted in Bipolar Diagnosis, Bipolar Treatment, Coping, How Others See Bipolar, Impact of Bipolar, Losing Friends, Talking About Bipolar and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

74 Responses to How to Help Someone with a Mental Illness

  1. Cindy says:

    Hi, I’m not sure if this post is too old to comment on, but as I am new in the world of dealing with a loved one with bipolar disorder, I wanted to write to you. Natasha, from all the forums and blogs and books and support groups I’ve attended, your insight and advice is some of the best. So thank you! My situation is that my boyfriend took off suddenly, after I asked him if he was going to get help for his “depression”, to which he responded “we’re not talking about this” and I thought (stupidly) that by pointing out that it was affecting me too, he would want to think about it, because I know he really cared for me. We were making plans for the rest of our lives, and all that fairy tale stuff. I just wanted him to get better, and I didn’t yet know it was bipolar disorder. So, he left, saying, it’s okay, you’ll be over me in a few days, and this is for the best, and this just isn’t right… it’s now been about 2 months, and he’s not talking to his Mom, except for when he has to be in her presence, and blows up at her, hasn’t told the parents that we aren’t together, and won’t respond to any attempt I make at contact. So, I think I understand his pattern, and hopefully if I’m right, he’ll come back to me, but at that time, how do you go about trying to get someone help that is in denial? I loved your post about the best things to say to someone with mental illness, and was thrilled to find that I’ve done most of the things on the list, but right now he thinks I’m the devil (for telling his best friends to watch out for him because he won’t let me, which means that now his friends are all “laughing at him”) and he says he wants me to stop contacting him and move on… enough of the information I’ve gotten says that this is fairly common and he might not mean it when he comes out of episode, but in the meantime, is there anything I CAN do to try to help him? Or is sending a text every once in a while saying “I’m still here for you” or something, going to further spin him out? I know he’s hurting so much, and I think he’s had a lot of pain from people either ignoring his problems (he’s sort of obsessed about the concept of “enabling people”) or “slipping away”, so my gut says he just wants someone to do the things you suggest, which is what I want to do. But I don’t want to do it in the wrong order or wrong timing and turn him off to me further, because I know I can be a valuable asset in the future, if he chooses to pursue treatment. Thanks again for your awesome input and this fabulous information and blogs!

  2. Hi Cindy,

    You’re in a really tough spot, to be sure. Many people have been there though. It does get better.

    With regards to contact, it is a personal thing, and of course, you know him, but I would suggest making a final contact something like, “I want to respect your wishes and not contact you, but I want you to know that I am there for you when you are ready.”

    I don’t think contacting someone repeatedly who has asked you not to is beneficial, but, like I said, you know him and it is personal. I believe respecting his wishes, at least in the short term, is better. I can hear that you want to help so much, but until he is ready, there really isn’t anything you can do.

    - Natasha

  3. Jamila Leclerc says:

    so my grandfather has a mental illness and it has gotten worse my mom has said his blackouts are getting worse and he’s seeing things that are not there because hes getting older and for 3-4 days he wants to lay on the floor and he has ocd(he wears diapers so constantly wiping his butt)and my grandmother i kinda feel bad for her cause shes constantly arguing at him and stuff and my uncle wants him to pick himself back up to get stronger so my uncle wont help him off the ground and etc. and my mom says you cant help a person with that disorder,is that true and why? if you cant because i think everyone deserves a little help here and there and i believe anyone/everyone needs help whatever the case may be to get better so what do you say to all my ranting and raving about this?

  4. Sarah says:

    Jamila,
    You can’t change or cure him but you most certainly can help him and make his life better. You can’t change your other relatives either or the family dynamic. Just be yourself.

  5. Julia says:

    Jamila,
    I am so sorry to hear of your predicament. From your message, I gather that maybe your grandparents live with your uncle? I also get the sense that you are grown and not living with your parents or in the same town as the rest of your family. ??

    My first bit of “advice” is to remember about basic needs. With how you described the situation, it seems (at least to me) that your grandfather is not having his needs met, by his own will or the wills of others. Laying on the ground for 24 or more hours, and having bowel movements without any cleaning, is indeed a serious matter. You need to get him help.

    Do you have any siblings you could talk to about this? Cousins? That would certainly be helpful, so you don’t feel like you are alone. The next thing to do would be to look for your state’s (where your grandfather resides) Department of Human Services. Google exactly what I just typed in and the name of your state. Browse around that site, keeping an eye out for anything that looks like it may relate to ‘mental health’, ‘seniors’ or ‘aging’, ‘independent living’ etc. You should be able to find a number somewhere that you can call and someone will be able to tell you what can be done for your grandfather…as long as someone gets the ball rolling, and it sounds like you may be the one give it that motion.

    Good luck, and please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.

  6. Alex says:

    I am having a really tough time and have no idea where to go or what to do. My brother listed in the military (Army to be exact) and was the top of his graduating class with a difficult MOS (medical laboratory specialist). He then went active duty for a few years and went through some pretty difficult stuff which I believe triggered his bipolar and/or schizophrenia disorder. The Army gave him a dishonorable discharge instead of helping him take care of his illness, and he now believes he is on his own. I can’t believe the Army would just leave someone stranded like that. What he doesn’t realize is that we, my parents and I, are right there besides him. We are willing to do whatever it takes to help him and will never quit, but he will not even acknowledge he has an illness. He will not allow us to help him. He has been diagnosed, but refuses to take medication. He often gets extremely irritable and angry, while at other times he is completely quiet and depressed. He was diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia. He doesn’t socialize, eat well, and injures himself without knowing it. Often he walks for miles to the point his feet get blisters and even where his nail came off once and he was not even bothered. He nearly chain smokes, doesn’t eat right, etc. etc. I have no idea what to do, and unfortunately, our legal system here doesn’t help. As a matter of fact, I cannot believe that our legal system does not enable loved ones to force care upon those who cannot take care of themselves. The worst part about it is that I know of someone who was Baker Acted/5150d and released and later killed his own father. How can I get him to realize he needs help and actually get it before it ever gets to be that bad?

  7. Julia says:

    Alex,
    I’m sorry to hear about your brother. How long ago was it that he was discharged from the army? There may be a way to appeal that discharge, asking instead for a medical discharge. It depends on circumstances, I’m sure, though. The reason I think of that is because I know someone who finally got a medical discharge from the army, but it wasn’t easy to get and he hadn’t been previously discharged, dishonorably or any other way. So I don’t know. But it may be worth a shot.

    I think it’s worth a shot because that dishonorable discharge may very well be what’s contributing to your brother’s refusal to look at his illness. Think about it. How would you respond? It’s not a conscious choice necessarily, but it certainly makes sense as a natural reaction. At least to me it does.

    Lastly, you say his diagnosis is ‘bipolar schizophrenia’. That’s not really one diagnosis. It’s two. Have they diagnosed him with both, one or the other? Sometimes there may be a diagnosis like schizoaffective bipolar disorder, which basically means the schizophrenic-like symptoms happen when he cycles moods. But the two disorders are very closely linked; more studies are being done to look at this. I recall reading one summary review of a study that suggested perhaps these two disorders are really one on a larger spectrum.

    Hang in there.

  8. Allison says:

    HI, I was wondering if anybody could help me. I am sixteen and I have a mother whom I suspect has a mental illness. She can be loving and sweet and then get angry for no reason at all and start screaming yelling, being violent and abusive, She has been this way my entire life. She gets angry with tiny things like if my father makes a face or says something she finds displeasing. She gets extremely violent even to the point where she has threatened to hurt us with a hammer or a piece of wood. It’s been this way my whole life.

  9. george says:

    hi allison, i heard of a group called familiesanonymous.org try looking that up on your computer and see if they have meeting near you,or maybe some other surport group,alateen etc…. there is help for all of us we just have to look for it,,

  10. Joe says:

    Hi i have the same situation as allison, i also suspect my moma has a mental illness, she’s always angry and has gotten worse, also more violent. Starting to hit when she gets angry, breaking throwing things. I can’t leave her alone for 2 minutes without something going on, could be screaming for hours, now she goes outside our door just yelling and at people, seems always wanting to argue with someone, been like this all her life or since i was a very little when i noticed.everything gets her angry even me talking on the phone, my mom has been in the house alone for years wich probably could of help trigger this. When we go out and shes normal, shes so sweet and just wants to enjoy or do something. I don’t know where to go or do, i dont want to send her to a mental hospital but i will if i have to, she talks to herself or to someone who isnt there, im not sure if she actually believes someones there or its because she has no one to talk to, im fed up and need to do something, it affected my life an a part of me, she doesnt want to do anything, escpecially important things, like do her medical card or go to the hospital, has a fractured hip, shes unable to have a normal conversation or understand most of the time, except with me mostly, she sayscrazy things, wishing bad things on other people guessing cuz she angry. Please help any advice

    Angry,bored,lonely which leads her to think and get mad and talk by herself as if she’s speaking with someone. Banging ,throwing & breaking things in the house. constant slamming doors and screaming. Yelling outside & at others outside minding there own buisness. Seems to always want to argue with someone( maybe because of the need to interact socially with someone) Little bit Illusional. Most of times- Unable to have a normal conversation without getting angry or letting the other person speak. Says things that aren’t true. 50\50 She is either angry, irrational and cant speak sense into her or she is calm and able to conversate. Home all day bored so is constantly cleaning, rearranging furniture, and wanting to throw things. Unsatisfied with whats in the house. Most times has lost the will to enjoy life or do normal things. At times deppressed. Other personal problems affect her to feel deppressed or angry. Cant control her anger. Feels alone as if she has no one, at times seems as if she wants help or screams for it. Unable & not well to work. Home all day & day after day so has suddenly wanting to leave the house & has started to go to stores accomponied by me, but is embarresed of how she looks of how she walks( fractured hip) and does not want to use her walker(marchet) anymore. And is still unstable mentally. Constant speaking to someone who isnt there because of being alone home for so long. ** In her mind she is mostly always right and cant talk to her or convince her, cant explain her anything at times, always her way, doesnt want to get help or doesn’t believes she needs any. Doesn’t want to do anything, doesn’t want to go out, everything gets her angry, can’t get her to do anything important, doesnt want to do her medical card or got to hospital for her leg, says she doesnt need to, makes it hard for her and us**

  11. obelisk says:

    I recently having to deal with a sibling who is diagnosed with bi-polar. In my mind the word exist but never do I take the time to research what it is and the a medical aspects of it. Is this something carried from the family gene? I can’t seem to find anything that justify this but I would like to know. My aunt has it and so does my sibling.

  12. Laura says:

    Hi,

    I was wondering if anyone had some advice to help me regarding my sister in law (please see post “Laura says: March 27, 2013 at 9:11 am” ).

    She improved earlier this year but is now back in the same frame of mind as Christmas 2012, we are at our wit’s end on how we can help her as she refuses all medical treatment…

    Thanks in advance if anyone has any advice!

  13. Sarah says:

    Hi Laura,
    I’m sorry about your sister and I think it sounds like she is mentally ill and needs medical treatment and a psychologist.

    It is very common for people not to seek or cooperate with treatment. This is actually part of the illness. You may have to get her sectioned, according to the laws of your country. This may be difficult if she is not a danger to anyone, but she is a danger to herself as the illness is destroying her relationships and alienating her from her support network.

    Putting someone away for treatment is a scary thing to do but you have her best interests at heart.

    I have bipolar and did not seek treatment for about a year after symptoms had started. It would have been good if the people around me had been more knowledgeable to get the help earlier.

    It is good to see a counsellor if you have a mental illness but there is not much point if you are at the stage of acute paranoias as you described your sister is doing. She need medication and protection. There is hope of improvement.

  14. george says:

    hi laura, i was lucky (i think) my friend who told me she has bipolar disorder,was not doing good a few weeks ago. and talked to her social worker who reminded her that she was diagnosed with bpd,and she told me this, now i found a new web site besides this one which i really like,www.bpdfamily.com good luck i hope your siter in-laws family can get her to a hospital,

  15. susan says:

    Hello,
    I was hoping you may have some advice. My sister-in-law has some type of mood disorder. Her moods go up and down. Like clockwork, at the dinner table, someone may make a remark that sets her off and she will cry and run off. Her husband and son will immediately run after her. We always walk on egg shells. I have gotten skilled at trying to keep things on an even keel and diffuse situations if I feel they are starting. She tajes care of her elderly mother who confided in me that her moods are up and down and it is very difficult to cope. We want to talk to her and urge her to get help. Everyone is afraid to do it. Prior to her visits I get physically ill in anticipation. Do you have any advice on how we could proceed? Thank you!

  16. Lynne says:

    I am a widow/single mom and my son is BP, has anxiety, depression, PTSD, & social phobeia. He is on disibility. After my husband passed away 14 years ago of abusing his body with drugs I do believe he was BP as well. My son has the same symptoms that his dad had. He is getting his medications but abuses them. He has recently moved back in and it is taking a toll on me. I can’t convince him to get help. He has never hurt me but that still doesn’t stop him from terrorizing me. I can’t get any help from the law because he has a drug charge pending and they will not help until he gets that taken care of. I sleep with my door barracaded sometimes and shouldn’t have to do that. I can’t even have a relationship because after someone finds out I have a son living at home and bi-polar they run the other way. I have rely on my neighbor to help out when my son gets out of hand. He scares the living day lights out of me when he’s this way. I have read and read and taken all the necessary steps I can to help him, but he still doesn’t want to help himself. He hasn’t had a job in a long time and has a change of getting a pretty decent one through the rehabilitation program here; BUT they told him he has to go through the 12 step program for that drug charge before they will help him. I can’t do no more. Any suggestions? Please help.

  17. Steve Warner says:

    Hi, I am concerned for my partner, she has most of the signs of a mental illness. I really do not know what to do. I took her to the hospital yesterday and she really didn’t get anything from it. They didn’t seem to interested, just referred her to a GP. She is reaching out and feels that there is no one here able to help her. Can someone please help me, so I know what path to take.

    Steve

  18. Brie says:

    This is exactly where I am at in my life. I fell in love, married, and had a child with a crazy man. I’ve just started taking time for myself. I’ve just recently started Prozac as his moods(this winter has been extremely brutal on him) completely dictate mine. I knew after a few months in that he was clinically crazy(not derogatory…that’s what we call it in this house). I made the vows in sickness and health. Some days it’s just so hard to watch him struggle and watch him shit me out. I take it so personal when he shuts me out and often I don’t feel he appreciates all that I shoulder. I love him dearly it’s just so darn hard at times.

  19. Angela garoutte says:

    I have mental illness but have a question hoping someone can help me I am off meds except anxiety but I was abused as child molested and shuned as well but my question is I’m 35 no friends had one years ago have a new friend and I daily feel I’m gonna loose her friendship like its fake I think about her all time I’m married 3 kids but still feel lonely just want good friend sometimes wanna die can’t get this feeling outta head always need talk to her afraid running her off what’s wrong with me

  20. OC Pat says:

    Hi, Angela, Know that you are not alone. I used to pray and pray and pray just for a friend. I don’t know where you live but DBSA Depression Bipolar Support Association has support groups. I would try to be a little careful in wearing your friend out re: your emotional troubles. Maybe you could share them with her just a little and share them here or on another chat room or blog or with a therapist. It is way hard to get over child hood abuse. I understand feeling lonely even though you have a husband and 3 kids. I have felt the same. Where I live, there are also support groups for people suffering from depression, women’s support groups, etc. I doubt if her friendship is fake, but I do know that I have “run people off” by always talking about my emotional problems and being too ‘needy’. That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone to be your only friend. My prayers are with you and I hope you find some way to get out and be around other people not just your one friend.

  21. Ruth says:

    What a blessing to have found this page. I am struggling in a two year relationship with a man that within the last few months was diagnosed BP1, severe depression, paranoia, etc. I always knew something was wrong but not to this extent. I am doing my best to love and support but it is becoming too much. Am finding that lies is a huge part of our life and the roller coaster of moods is slowing breaking this relationship. He says he just lies “because” and that is destroying us. Funny thing is lies are like a 5 year old would tell not a grown man, about silly things. His depression, guilt, days that he loses doing nothing are killing us both…

  22. Marie says:

    Hi

    We took in a young man 5 months ago and it comes through very strongly he has mental health issues. I have spoken to his family who have said he was under mental health but refused all appointments and treatments and a full diagnoses was never made. I now feel like I am trapped in my own home and fear for mine and my children’s safety as he has now started videoing himself with weapons. He also has a thing with playing with fire. His eating habits are way out there and his moods are always up and down. None of his family are willing to help. I have contacted a few places to try get help but with no help from any of them we are stuck in a hole that just seems to be getting bigger and bigger. I have a 2 yr old girl who I am majorly concerned about as I have just been made aware of some strange going on with his little sister. I am hoping you can give me a push in the right direction to get him the help he needs. I myself suffer with depression which has escalated over the past couple of weeks and I am feeling imprisoned in my own home. Any suggestions of anyone I can contact would be highly appreciated. Thanks

  23. Gina says:

    I couldn’t have put the words in this article any better. These words have been in my heart and I want to share them with those who love me and want to help, so I am passing this on. I am sorry to hear the stories of those who have to take care of love ones and have it so hard. I remember before I was medicated the terror I must have been to those around me. And now that I am medicated, I still have those days, weeks, months. But I appreciate those who stuck by me, when I thought all was lost. Hang in there. Take care of yourselves. Hopefully in all the chaos, you will find some peace. Thanks for the article Tracy

  24. amy says:

    My husband hung himself on monday 9/1/2014
    He is now blaming everyone else but himself.
    I have no support system out here.he is in complete
    Denial.i just don’t know how to help him.

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