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How to support someone with a mental illness

How to support someone with a mental illness

Published on Friday, 08 October 2021

Posted in News

This World Mental Health Day, we're focusing on how to support others with their mental health.

If a friend, family member, or someone else you care for has a mental illness, you may at times feel both hopeless and helpless. Mental illnesses are common and treatable. With a good understanding, and a well-informed, caring and supportive approach, you can play an important part in that person’s recovery. By working alongside the person who is ill and their doctor, you can help speed up recovery, prevent relationship and family breakdown, and avoid other potentially negative consequences of the illness such as unemployment, alcohol abuse, financial difficulties or even suicide.

Knowing the signs

Identifying the signs and symptoms of mental illness in a friend or a loved one can be very difficult. There are many different types of conditions and spotting the symptoms isn't easy, especially if someone has been feeling the same way for a long time. Here are some common signs and symptoms that people with mental illness may experience:

  • They may be experiencing mood changes that are abnormal for them, such as having extended feelings of unhappiness, anger, worry, guilt, anxiousness, restless, and agitation
  • They may be thinking things such as ‘life isn’t worth living’, ‘nothing ever goes right’, ‘something bad is going to happen’, ‘I’m useless’. They might find it hard to concentrate or make decisions.
  • They have behavioural changes such as avoiding people, crying a lot, changes in their eating, changes in their sleep pattern, being forgetful or confused frequently, recklessness, hurting themselves, misuse of alcohol or drugs
  • They may be experiencing physical symptoms such as aches and pains in their body, fatigue and lack of energy, weight changes, dizziness, rapid heartbeat and breathing or stomach problems

Different people are likely to be affected in different ways and have more problems with certain symptoms. If you notice some of these signs in a friend or family member, you should try and talk to them about it and listen to how they are feeling.

How to talk about it

How to start the conversation

It can be difficult to start a conversation about mental health, especially when it is someone close to you. It’s ok to feel nervous about approaching the conversation, but try and remind yourself why you are doing it and you want to help them.

Remember that listening is the most important thing you can do to help! Most people aren’t asking for advice when they are asking for help, sometimes they just need someone to talk to free from judgement.

Here are some ways that you can try to start a conversation with someone about mental health:

  • ‘’How are you? Tell me honestly.’’
  • ‘’If you ever want to talk about anything, I’m here.’’
  • “I have been feeling concerned about you lately.”
  • “Recently, I have noticed some differences in you and wondered how you are doing.”
  • “That sounds really hard, when did you begin feeling like this?”
  • “Did something happen that made you start feeling this way?”
  • “How can I best support you right now/today?”
  • “I’m really sorry you’re going through this. Have you thought about getting help?”
  • “You are not alone. I am here for you.”

People can feel vulnerable when talking about their mental health, so keep these phrases in mind to reassure them:

  • Telling them that you see their struggle can be an important help. People can be afraid to let others know they are not coping, but being able to connect with others can be a relief.
  • They are not alone. Even if they think that no one can understand exactly how they feel, they do not have to deal with things alone.
  • It’s important to remind them that mental illnesses are treatable and that it is not their fault. With a good understanding, and a well-informed, caring and supportive approach, you can play an important part in helping them with their mental health.

How can I help?

  • Talk to them. Ask them how they feel.
  • Be a good listener
  • Encourage them to:
  • See their GP
  • Exercise and eat a balanced diet
  • Try some relaxation techniques
  • Reduce caffeine intake if they have anxiety
  • Avoid alcohol, or take within recommended safe limits

Support available

At AWARE, we believe that talking to others who know how you feel, is an important step in your journey to recovery. 

AWARE Support Groups

We have a network of support groups that are run by our trained volunteers. Support groups welcome people with depression and bipolar disorder as well as carers for people with the illness. The aim of the groups is to bring together people who are suffering and invite them to share their experiences and discuss coping mechanisms.

For more info on our support groups, click here.

Other Support Services

We offer a support mail service for people that have any questions about depression or perhaps would like more information about the illness.

Please email info@aware-ni.org for more information on these services. 

We have set up a support line to offer support and information.  Please call 07548530931 or 07340488254. The support line operates Mon - Fri 11am - 3pm

Taking care of yourself

It is important that you practice self-care when supporting someone with their mental health. When supporting someone who is suffering from mental illness, it is normal to experience difficult emotions and feel overwhelmed. It is crucial to look after your own mental health during this time and take care of yourself too.

Here are some ways you can practice self-care:

  • Talk to trusted friends and family, but do respect the person’s right to privacy
  • Reach out to AWARE for support and information about our range of services available
  • Don’t struggle alone; ask for help when you feel you need it
  • Try to maintain a regular routine for your day, such as eating a healthy balanced diet, maintaining good sleep hygiene, exercising, and limiting your alcohol intake
  • Make time for yourself, and do something you enjoy

How do I respond in a crisis?

If the person you are supporting is showing signs of suicidal ideation, it is important they receive the help that they need. This news can be worrying, but it is important that you stay calm. Encourage them to seek professional help straight away. Help and support is available through GP services, and they can refer to the most appropriate treatment for that person.

The following helplines are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

  • Lifeline: 0808 808 8000
  • Samaritans: 116 123
  • Emergency Services: 999