How to Support a Loved One With a Mental Illness

Throughout the course of our life, it is very likely that we will have a close family member, friend, or partner who will struggle with significant mental health issues. In fact, one in four people globally will experience a mental or neurological disorder in their lifetime. It’s fairly likely that at some point you will face a mental health challenge yourself.

How can you best support and love someone who is living with an ongoing mental health condition? Here’s some guidance.

Ask your loved one how they’d like you to interact with their mental illness.

It’s important to learn to listen to the voice of the person who lives each day with their mental health diagnosis. No matter how much knowledge you have about their mental health status, you don’t have the daily lived experience that they do. Ask your loved one how they understand their mental health and how they prefer to manage the particular challenges that they deal with. You can ask your loved one how they like to be supported.

For example, if your best friend struggles with depression, they may be able to let you know that when they cancel plans on you, it’s because they have really low energy and seeing people feels overwhelming. You may be able to communicate that your understanding reduces their feelings of guilt. Or they may be able to let you know when you can come over and spend time with them in a quieter, calmer environment.

It can also be helpful for you to educate yourself on your loved one’s diagnosis. Try to find blogs or resources that have been written or shared by individuals who live with the same condition as your loved one. This is not to say that the person close to you has the exact same experience, but reading about others will hopefully give you some background to be able to ask informed questions and relieve that person from some of the burden of teaching you about a particular mental health issue.

Understand that your loved one likely faces a lot of stigma and misunderstanding.

Mental health challenges are still highly stigmatized in our culture. Though seeking therapeutic treatment is becoming more common, people who struggle with mental health issues are often judged harshly as if their diagnoses are personal flaws or failures. You can ask your loved one how you can best help them resist those toxic cultural ideas that having a mental health diagnosis means you are lesser than. Rachel Haufe, an associate marriage and family therapist, says, “When a loved one has a mental illness it’s critical to affirm them for the incredible courage it takes to battle mental illness.”

Understand that you are NOT the cure.

This is perhaps the most important part of having a long term, loving relationship with someone who struggles with a mental illness. Because you care for this person, it is completely natural to deeply want to be the one who can make everything better for them. However, this expectation ends up putting unfair pressure on both you and your loved one. You risk making your loved one feel like you’re trying to control them. Unless you are the parent of a minor child, taking responsibility for someone else’s mental health issues disrespects that individual’s agency.

If your loved one is struggling with dangerous or life-threatening behavior, they need a higher level of care than you will be able to give as a friend or family member. Encourage them to get in contact with a mental health provider that they trust and feel like they have a good fit with.

Haufe says, “It’s important to let your loved one know that you believe in them and that you are there. At the same time don’t overcompensate for your loved one’s lack of motivation or try to push them to get better. The loved one with mental illness needs to get help and do the work to get well also.”

Understand your personal triggers.

If you have a really close relationship with someone who lives with mental illness, it’s important for you to practice self-awareness around how you react and respond to symptoms of this person’s diagnosis. It is common to feel powerless and out of control when a loved one has an ongoing mental health condition. Feeling powerless often makes us defensive, irritated, angry, or sad which, if we aren’t careful, we may end up taking out on our loved one or on ourselves.

Which expressions of your loved one’s condition tend to trigger feelings of insecurity of powerlessness for you? For example, when your partner’s depression flares up and they withdraw from you, do you find yourself feeling unloved? Do you find yourself feeling guilty when you don’t know how to respond to your brother’s PTSD symptoms?

Once you identify this, you can gently remind yourself that your loved one is not trying to hurt you or make you feel bad. Instead, you are reacting to a particular expression of their mental illness. You can bring up your triggers with your loved one so they can be aware of what’s happening when their mental illness interacts with your fears or insecurities. You can say, for example, “Sometimes when you withdraw, I start to worry you don’t love me anymore. I want to respect your need for more space but would you be able to just tell me you love me when I need reassurance?” The more you and your loved one can communicate about how to handle specific situations, the more you can support each other day-to-day without misunderstanding or frustration.

Set boundaries and maintain them with love.

Your loved one may sometimes have more needs than you are able to provide for. Take some time to reflect on how much you are able to lovingly give, how much you are able to support, and how you would know when you aren’t able to give anymore.

Communicate your limits with your loved one and let them know that your boundaries are about your personal energy level and capacity rather than a reflection of how much you care for or love them. This can be difficult because you may not always be able to give as much as you would like to or as much as your loved one needs you to. The difficult thing here is that if you give more than you are really able to, you risk burning yourself out and it will be hard for you to sustain a long term relationship with this person that you care for.

Finally, remember that mental illness is something that your loved one lives with, not something that defines them. They are not their mental health diagnosis. When you listen to and trust the voice of your loved one on their journey to navigate and manage their mental health challenges, you’ll have a much better chance of being able to respect and experience that person for who they are as a whole, dynamic human being.

Header image illustrated by Leonor Carvalho

Louise is an associate marriage and family therapist who writes about sex and relationships. Want more juicy facts about sex from a feminist, research-based, perspective? Check out more of her writing and follow her on Instagram @swoon.sex.ed.