How to Support a Loved One with Mental Illness

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Years ago, a close friend of mine was going through a heart-wrenching breakup. I had run out of ideas on how to help her, and I was simply unsure what a good friend looked like in this particular situation. So I reached out to someone who did—someone who had been through a similarly devastating breakup—and I asked for help.

“What helped you? What are things your friends did that made you feel loved? What things did they do that didn’t make you feel loved? What are practical things I can do?” I asked.

I was deeply grateful for her response. She had something I didn’t: personal experience. This qualified her to see into the pain my friend was feeling in a way I couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried.

Similarly, as someone who’s lived with mental illness, people often turn to me for advice when their loved ones are struggling with mental health issues.

As I’ve witnessed how many people contact me because they genuinely want to love their friends and family well, I’ve been motivated to put this advice onto paper (or screen) so it’s more widely available.

I’m not an expert or a mental health professional (though I am a big fan of those people!). In person or on the blog, I’m simply here to offer insight from personal experience. Over the next few posts I've invited several people to share their wisdom on how to support loved ones with specific mental illnesses, but this first topic is just for you!

As you walk alongside someone with mental illness, here are a few things that may be helpful to keep in mind.

1. Caring—just caring—goes a long way.

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As humans, we’re built for connection, and we can tell when someone cares. In the throes of mental illness, the stigma and shame can feel overwhelming. Knowing people care about us can be a powerful force.

Don’t underestimate the difference simply showing up can make in someone’s life. People with mental illness are still people, and connection matters to us all.


2. You are not responsible for someone else’s recovery. 

We are not responsible for others’ happiness, for their health, or for their mental wellbeing. We are not responsible for the decisions others make, for their backsliding or for their recovery. We are not responsible.

We are responsible for our own actions. We are responsible for acting in love and practicing compassion. We are responsible for our words and our attitudes. We are responsible for ourselves.

In our pride or our well-meaning love, we can berate ourselves for not doing more or fixing everything. However, no matter how hard we try or wish we could change someone’s mental health, we can’t. 

We are not responsible for their recovery, even if we wish we were.

3. Don’t forget about you.

In our efforts to help others, it can be easy to lose ourselves. We sacrifice time and energy, and sometimes we sacrifice our own identity in an attempt to help others find theirs.

In our devotion to others, it’s vital to take care of ourselves, too—to set boundaries, set aside time to rest, and engage in activities that replenish us in all senses: emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

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4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Reach out to someone you trust and ask for help when you need it. “Help” might look like a lunch date to process how you’re doing or a quick text to a friend asking for prayer.

It might look like going to counseling or receiving training when you’re closely involved with someone with mental illness.

It might also look like asking your loved one with mental illness for help: “Can you help me understand what’s going on?” or “How I can best love you this week?”

Last of all, don’t be afraid to reach out for help from me or anyone else in your life who’s experienced mental illness! We are here for you, to support you and cheer you on and remind you to take a deep breath when things are hard.

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