How to support someone with Mental Illness

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Supporting someone with mental illness can be difficult. What should you say and not say? What should you do and not do?

Supporting someone with mental illness can be difficult. What should you say and not say? What should you do and not do?

First educate yourself around mental illness. Mental health charities Mind and SANE both have informative websites.

Second: You must look after yourself. You can’t support anyone else if you are unwell physically, mentally or emotionally.

The practical advice to support someone with mental illness:

  • Stay in contact with them. Ask them how they would like you to keep in contact. Some may prefer phoning or seeing; whereas others may prefer messaging or texting.
  • Unconditional love and care. Let them know that you love them unconditionally and care for them deeply. Don’t have any expectation that they will reciprocate.
  • Listen to what they say and don’t assume anything.
  • Ensure that there are no distractions when you are with them or on the phone to them. Put your phone on silent and make sure any loud children are pets are out of the way (if you have them).
  • Offer practical support. Go shopping for them or with them, help them to clean, cook them a meal. Whatever it is that they need. They may be resistant to the idea of practical help, so reassure them that you are happy to help and that you know they’d do it for you.
  • Remind them to take their medication or when appointments are due. People with mental illness tend to have poor short-term memories.
  • Ask them about their appetite and diet. If they have an appetite but are struggling to make anything (due to lack of energy and/or motivation), find out what their favourite meal is and cook it for them.
  • Offer distracting activities. Distracting activities that you can both do together can give someone a break from their own critical inner of voice. The activities can be something as simple as a walk around the park. Make sure you are always led by the person with mental illness though. If they say that they are too unwell or tired to do the activity, don’t take it personally. And certainly don’t judge them or take offence.
  • Help them access support. This could include going with them to their GP, counselling sessions or mental health service appointments. Offer to sit in appointments with them, but let them know that it’s okay if they want to be seen alone.
  • Be understanding. Someone with mental illness may cancel plans at the last minute. You may arrive at their house to find it messy and them unclean. Don’t take it personally, let them know that you understand and ask if there is any way that you can help.
  • Be patient. Like any illness, mental illness takes the right treatment, the right support and time for them to start to feel better.
  • Limit questions and time spent with them, if you feel they are exhausted and need to rest. You’ll be able to spot if they need to rest by: pulling on their hair, forgetting what you’ve just said to them, being very slow to respond, unable to think of words, dropping of their head, shuffling of feet and other body language people use when they look like they are about to drop off to sleep.
  • Be aware of your own body language and theirs. Try and display open body language and avoid mirroring.
  • Try not to give advice, as often it is unrealistic and unhelpful. For example, never advise someone with depression to exercise more or have a healthier diet. This person has probably used all of their energy and motivation to get out of the bed. This single action has left them more exhausted than they have ever been in their life. So advising them to exercise, eat an healthier diet or make big changes to their life will seem unachievable and may come across as if you are blaming them for their depression.

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Antony Simpson
Bio: Antony Simpson is a registered Nurse with over 13 years experience in the fields of mental health and alcohol & substance misuse. He is diagnosed with Cyclothymic disorder (a form of bipolar) and author of Mental Health Wisdom. The blend of professional and personal experience makes Mental Health Wisdom truly unique.


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