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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'Daring to Hope' Book Brings Personal Revelation

Breathe, Allison.

In, out. In, out.

I wiped away tears with the back of my cardigan sleeve and held back my sniffles. I glanced over to my right, where the lady in the middle seat of the airplane row peered down at her book, politely pretending she didn't notice the woman in the window seat had become an absolute mess.

I looked down at the pages of the book again, and then up at the seat back in front of me, and then back down at the book. I stared at the page until the words appeared blurry from tears. I read and reread it:

"As humans, each of us just as lacking as the next, I think the most powerful thing we can do for another person is not to try to fix his or her pain or make it go away, but to acknowledge it. I cannot heal. I cannot perform miracles. Even for all my trying I cannot make sure that someone will receive salvation from Jesus. But I can be a witness.

I can look at another's broken, bleeding mess and I can say, 'I see you. I am with you. I will not turn away.'" - Katie MajorsDaring to Hope

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Stock photo from

These words transported me back to a hospital on the other side of the world, where three summer ago I met Cambodian patients and a searing sense of helplessness as I watched suffering and active dying. I remembered how these experiences had opened my eyes to the Lord's precious, comforting and healing presence.

"I see you. I am with you. I will not turn away."

This is what Jesus had done for me and for the patients, and this was enough. It was enough to fill me to overflowing and to bring tears of relief to my eyes.

But Katie wasn't talking about Jesus in this paragraph. She was talking about humans. She was talking about us. 

Something magical happened in my heart in that window seat on the plane that day. For the first time, I was able to believe that perhaps my presence was a gift, too. Perhaps my presence was a valid contribution; perhaps my presence meant something and made a difference.

Could it be that my presence was enough? For most of my life, I found my identity in being a caretakerA caretaker, I learned, fixes problems and meets needs and gains a sense of identity from it. In contrast, caregivers act from an overflow, with an identity rooted deeply in confidence, humility, and unconditional love for self and others. Caregivers give care without needing anything in return—no recognition or contribution to a sense of identity.

I mulled over these thoughts, and I wondered. In that rural Cambodian hospital, I had believed I had nothing to offer; I had no magician's hat or Mary Poppins purse from which to pull antibiotics or an MRI machine. Yet here, in the pages of Katie Majors' book, I discovered perhaps I had given an offering of the utmost importance to those beloved patients. I had given my presence.

It had nearly killed me on the inside to show up day after day to Kratie Referral Hospital, but show up I did. I could not offer resources or cures. I watched when it pained me, when I wanted to run from the building crying and screaming. I offered up prayers as I passed by beds with children with malaria and mothers, brothers, and sons in a coma. I stood beside an infant in a crib, alone in an empty room. I watched her tiny toes wiggle and adjusted the pulse oximeter and served as a witness to her condition. No more, no less. A witness.

For all these years, I thought I had given nothing. But what if I had given everything? What if my presence was the ultimate gift I could give, and what if this gift made a difference?

In that that airplane window seat, I let the tears stream down my face. I knew I was not having a breakdown but a breakthrough. 

As an introvert, I already know that my presence at a party or event is usually the only gift I can muster. Perhaps though, presence is also the gift of highest value we have to offer, anytime and anywhere. To show up, to engage, to be present and to be a witness. Perhaps this is not only of great value in situations where we have nothing else to offer, but perhaps it is the greatest gift at all times. Perhaps it is more valuable than our entire bank accounts or the most thoughtful gifts or the ability to fix everyone's problems and bring physical healing.

Perhaps the worth of our presence outweighs all these things and more, for we are made in the image of God.

When I first learned I would have the opportunity to be a part of the launch team for Katie Majors' new book, Daring to Hope, I thought I'd be inspired and maybe humbled—and I did find these things in her book, but I also found much more. In an unexpected move, the Holy Spirit showed up in the pages and brought healing and revelation. He brought me to tears and whispered I had not failed in that hospital all those months ago. I had offered all I had, and what I offered was enough. His presence is enough for me, and at times my presence alone is enough for others. He will take care of the rest.


Katie's book comes out on October 3, 2017, and I highly recommend it!! You can preorder it here. Katie has a way of weaving vulnerable, honest stories with Scripture in a unique way that opens the door for the Lord to show up and speak to each reader in a personal way. In other words, her writing invites us into His presence, the greatest place to be.
Special thanks to Waterbrook & Multnomah and Katie Majors for welcoming me onto their launch team. For full disclosure, I did receive a free copy of Daring to Hope, and the Amazon links to the book are affiliate links, which means I might get a small commission if you purchase using the link (which will probably go to pay for the official copy of Daring to Hope I just preordered!). Let me know if you end up reading the book; I'd love to hear your thoughts on it!

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