Supporting a Loved One Experiencing Mental Health Concerns

By: Lauren Drake, Clinical Intern

 Did you know that every year an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder? What would you do if a friend or family member told you that they are struggling with depression, panic attacks, an eating disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder PTSD, or something similar? Perhaps you’ve been in this situation, or maybe you will be in the future. It can be overwhelming and confusing to know how to respond when a loved one struggles with mental health concerns. Most people feel like they want to provide support, but aren’t sure how to do so.

Every mental health condition is different and there are a variety of ways to support a loved one who is struggling. However, there are a few things that can be useful across situations. If you suspect or learn that someone close to you is experiencing mental health concerns, try to keep in mind the following:

  • Listen!  Oftentimes people struggling with mental health feel very alone. If your loved one wants to confide in you about what’s been going on, take time to listen to what they have to say. Although active listening might not feel as helpful as giving advice, calling a professional, or providing reassurance, doing so will help your loved one to feel less isolated and  afraid.
  • Ask how they would like to be supported. Don’t assume they would like you to call more often, leave them alone, give advice, or share self-help tips. Instead, ask what would be most helpful! You can ask a simple question, such as, “How can I best support you right now?”
  • Your loved one is still the same person they were before. They are not defined by their condition or disorder.  Try to think and speak about them in person-first language. For example, just as you would not say that someone “is cancer”, it can be stigmatizing to say that someone “is depressed, anorexic, OCD, etc.”  Instead, they are “facing/struggling with/battling/experiencing symptoms of depression, anorexia, OCD, etc.”
  • Encourage them to seek (or stick with) treatment. If your loved one is struggling and has not sought help, encourage them to do so. To avoid pushing too hard or confrontation, consider asking, “Have you thought about getting help?” Often seeking professional treatment in the form of therapy, medication, hospitalization, or a day treatment program is extremely helpful, but seeking it out can be an intimidating step. Ask your loved one if they have considered professional help and encourage them to consider it. Offer to sit with them while they make a phone call or accompany them to their first appointment. If your loved one is already in treatment but doesn’t feel like it’s working, encourage them to stick it out. Suggest talking to their care providers about the perceived lack of progress to see if any adjustments need to be made to medication or therapies.
  • Learn more about what they are struggling with. Fortunately, there are many great resources available to loved ones of those struggling with mental health concerns. You can look online to find many websites that provide information and support to loved ones of those with mental health issues. Learning more factual information about conditions such as depression, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, or PTSD can provide you with a better understanding of your loved one’s symptoms and what they are going through. It may also help you to take any changes in your relationship less personally. Here are a few helpful websites related to eating disorders, depression, and OCD:
  • Don’t burn yourself out. As much as you want to provide support your loved one, it is not your responsibility to “fix” them. Know your own limits and do not take on more of their emotional burden than you can handle. It might be helpful to visit a support group for loved ones of those struggling with a mental health concern. Check online to find support groups in your local area, such as those run by the National Alliance for Mental Illness:

Whether your loved one is newly diagnosed or has been struggling with mental health concerns for many years, knowing how to provide support is often a challenge. These tips for providing caring and compassionate support are by no means all the ways you can help, but they may be helpful to you now and in the future.