If you are a friend or family member of someone struggling with a mental health issue, you want to provide support but may not know what to say or how to start. Maybe you have already been talking with and trying to help your loved one progress in managing their illness but feel some frustration. On some days you are optimistic that the journey is moving forward, but on others, it seems like you are in reverse.
These tips are intended to give you the knowledge and confidence to help you and your loved one through the process of getting help and getting better. We know that this can be a tough journey along a difficult path, but it can lead to what for many people is an amazingly positive outcome: Recovery.
It is not your job to “fix” the person. Your role is to be a great partner, cheering your loved one on and helping them to stay focused and hopeful. You are not expected to be an expert or have all the answers. Remember, it is their journey, not yours.
Supporters can overcome the “fixer” mindset by practicing “Empathetic Detachment”. Empathetic Detachment means that you care about your loved one and empathize with their situation but embrace that you are not responsible for changing it. Instead, provide a safe space for the person who is struggling and allow them to determine what level of support will help them most at that point in time. If you are asked for a solution, try suggesting how you can work together to find possible ways forward.
Express your desire to understand what this person is going through by asking questions and actively listening to what they say. Be fully present in the conversation: the physical component of active listening means shutting off your phone or TV and eliminating other distractions.
Welcome your friend or family member as they are. Ask to hear their story. Whether it is good or bad, whether things have gone forward or backward, their experience is their story and it’s important to respect that. Ask about how they are feeling and about behaviors that seem unusual or may concern you.
One of the common traps supporters can fall into is acting without full knowledge of what has happened or how the person perceives it. This trap is related to “fixer” thinking, wanting to do something, anything to ease the problem. Instead, by taking the time to listen carefully and gain empathetic understanding of the situation, you will be more effective as a supporter and partner.
As a caring supporter, your most important opportunity is to reinforce strengths, not diminish them by “flaw-finding.” Instead, help your loved one feel and be stronger by acknowledging even small steps forward and the work it took to achieve them.
Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize how much work your loved one has done to take a very small step forward. To help you appreciate and acknowledge their effort, use a “strengths-based” approach to describing situations, rather than focusing on negatives. Consider developing a strengths and challenges chart and share it with the person you are helping.
Helping someone with mental health issues can put supporters on the proverbial “emotional rollercoaster,” with “up” times and “down” ones. Don’t give up! Stay connected and be sure to take care of yourself too.
Some days you feel that you know just what to do to be helpful and it seems to be working. Other days, it can feel like everything is going backwards and you feel frustrated, helpless, anxious or overwhelmed.
Practice empathy, not just sympathy. It will give everyone time to calm down and it will give you time – and the emotional space – to offer one of your most powerful gifts: the capacity to be an empathic supporter. Here’s where it’s also important to remind yourself that this isn’t about you. You are likely to be disappointed if you start this journey expecting to be fulfilled and appreciated every day—and maybe even at all.
Finally, it’s important to take steps that give you the strength, resilience and energy to be an effective supporter of someone managing mental health issues. Offering care to someone starts with caring for yourself.
A person’s mental health journey is likely one that will last a lifetime. While there will be setbacks, there will also be triumphs. It’s important to applaud every step of progress, no matter how small. Before you talk with your friend or family member about addressing the next challenge, always take time to recognize how hard they are already working to make progress.
Celebrating victories goes hand-in-hand with taking a strengths-based approach to being a supporter. This can help to make the mental health journey a more successful one. Recent research has made it clear that confrontation and punishment are not drivers of long-term change and life success. What works: accelerating access to positive reinforcement.
Hope is one of the most important gifts supporters can bring to the mental health journey. Your hope empowers the person you care about to begin to imagine a better life, even when they cannot envision it on their own.
Support the fact that everyone – no matter how severe their mental health challenges – can put together a vision of hope in their own words. Help the person to write down their vision for the future, to help make it more real and concrete. Encourage them to not sell themselves short and reinforce that they can achieve a life with happiness, self-worth and meaning.
Recognize that hope is very fragile. It is easy for someone who is just beginning to create their vision to be crushed, sometimes by casual or even well-meaning comments. Remember that this isn’t about your vision or goals for the person. Instead, support their vision for themselves, even if aspects seem unrealistic to you at first. Over time, the person may - as we all do - adjust some specifics to adapt to current realities and new opportunities, while the intent of the goal remains intact. If you can offer positive encouragement, the person you are trying to help will be more appreciative of your support and more likely to make progress.
Want to learn more about mental health but not sure where to begin? Check out the links below to learn more about a wide range of mental health topics.
Mental Health America
Mental Health America is the nation’s leading community-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and to promoting the overall mental health of all Americans. Its work is driven by a commitment to promote mental health as a critical part of overall wellness.
Strong 365 is a community of wellness warriors who believe the strength to persist and thrive through a mental health challenge exists in all of us. Its mission is to shorten the path to effective, life-saving help for individuals with psychosis — one of the most misunderstood health issues affecting our community today.
department of veterans affairs
For the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), nothing is more important than supporting the health and well-being of the Nation’s Veterans and their families. A major part of that support is providing timely access to high-quality, evidence-based mental health care. VA aims to address Veterans’ needs, during Service members’ reintegration into civilian life and beyond.
Anxiety & Depression Association of america
Founded in 1979, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) is an international nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the prevention, treatment, and cure of anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, and co-occurring disorders through education, practice, and research.
international ocd foundation
The International OCD Foundation helps those affected by obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and related disorders to live full and productive lives. Its aim is to increase access to effective treatment through research and training, foster a hopeful and supportive community, and fight stigma surrounding mental health issues.
Child mind institute
The Child Mind Institute is dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders. It works to deliver the highest standards of care, advance the science of the developing brain and empower parents, professionals and policymakers to support children.
Mental Health First Aid
Mental Health First Aid is an 8-hour course that teaches you how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. The training gives you the skills you need to reach out and provide initial help and support to someone who may be developing a mental health problem or experiencing a crisis.
The Steve Fund
The Steve Fund is focused on supporting the mental health and emotional well-being of young people of color. The Steve Fund works with colleges and universities, non-profits, researchers, mental health experts, families, and young people to promote programs and strategies that build understanding and assistance for the mental and emotional health of the nation’s young people of color.
Five Signs of Emotional Suffering
Developed by the Campaign to Change Direction, the Five Signs of Emotional Suffering tool is intended to help identify when someone is in emotional pain and could need help.
Find support near you
If you are experiencing mental health issues and are not currently under the care of a mental health professional, talk to your primary care doctor. If you are concerned about your child, talk to your child’s pediatrician.
If you or someone you know needs immediate help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Texas Line by texting HOME to 741741.
Here For Texas
HereForTexas.com is a searchable online database of North Texas mental health providers and resources. This website offers comprehensive information on mental health resources for people of all ages and is a free, public service initiative of Grant Halliburton Foundation and North Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians.
Local Mental Health Authorities
Texas Health and Human Services contracts with 37 local mental health authorities and two local behavioral health authorities to deliver mental health services in communities across Texas. Find a local mental health authority in your area to get connected to services.
NAMI Texas Affiliates
The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Texas (NAMI Texas) has 27 local Affiliates throughout Texas. Its members are made up of individuals living with mental illness, family members, friends, and professionals. Its purpose is to help improve the lives of people affected by mental illness through education, support, and advocacy.
Cohen Veterans Network
Cohen Veterans Network seeks to improve the quality of life for veterans, including those from the National Guard and Reserves, and their families. CVN works to strengthen mental health outcomes and complement existing support, with a particular focus on post-traumatic stress.
Starting the Conversation: College and Your Mental Health
NAMI, in partnership with The JED Foundation, created this guide to help college students and parents talk about mental health and put a thoughtful plan into place should a mental health condition arise.
Project HEAL (Help to Eat, Accept and Live) is a nonprofit organization that helps people suffering with eating disorders pay for treatment. Project HEAL’s grants help to cover inpatient, residential, outpatient, and intensive outpatient treatments. Recipients can apply for treatment grants through the organization’s website.