8 ways you can help someone with mental ill-health

Have you ever felt at a loss as to how to help that friend or loved one struggling with mental ill-health? Have you wondered what you can do personally to promote better wellbeing or even support the cause itself?  It seems hard, a battle so great that we often fall into the trap of feeling helpless and unempowered.  Putting mental health in the hands of professionals, charities or the government (which obviously have their place).  But what can we do as a society, as a friend or relative? 

Mentalhealthy has put together 8 top tips to take back some power and use our voice, shoulders or telephone, to be the voice for those who find it so hard to speak.  I know it sounds cliche, but together we CAN make a difference.

1. Know where to go for help

Getting the right mental health care can be hard, sometimes it takes months or even years to get a correct diagnosis and treatment plan. While the person in need of help is obviously the priority, being the 'healthy' friend or relative can be an exhausting and frustrating process, if you are very close to the person, one of the best things you can do to help with a diagnosis and treatment plan is to be there at appointments, keep notes and ask questions. It can be really really hard when you are the 'patient' to remember everything and to interpret the doctor's words subjectively.  This is one of the very best ways you can help someone close to you get the correct help and support.

While the patient's GP will be the first port of call, if you are not recieving the care and support from the health service you can try charitable organisations and PALS (the patient liaison service). Some useful contacts are:


SANELine: 0300 304 7000

2. Just BE there

It is easy to feel helpless, you want to help and don't feel able, some days can be great while others very tough, when someone you care about is struggling.  However the best thing you can do for someone in need is BE there, not neccassarily in person, this isn't always practical, but let them know you care and are there if they watnt to talk, call, shout, scream, hug, cry or just sit in silence. 

Becoming a listener rather than a doer can be tough, especially for those of us who want to 'fix' things, but putting our own opinions into the mix does not help and often hinders.

3. Never say 'you should'..

Sometimes it can be so hard not to dive in with advice. When someone is struggling with mental health issues sometimes advice is the last thing they want to hear. Telling someine who has depression 'what a lovely day it is outside you should get some fresh air,' or 'you should go for a walk, that'll make you feel better', may sound like great advice but it can feel like a huge burden and mountain to someone who can barely raise their head from thie pillow.  Yes going for a walk may be a great idea, but how about simply saying, 'I am here if you would like to take a walk together sometime' and leaving them to come to you.  The difference may be subtle but saying that someone 'should' do something can feel very accusatory, a person struggling may feel this as a defeat or failure if they cannot.  

By simply changing our language from 'you should' to, 'if you'd like', or 'talk to me' to 'I'm here for you if you want to talk', it puts power back in the hands of the person who is probably feeling very helpless already.

4. Send a text

Sending a text when you are out and about or away can really boost someone's day. I remember someone telling me 'a text saved my life'. Just as they were contemplating the worst, a happy 'thinking of you' text came in, it was enough to break that awful moment and change his thinking at that crucial time.  Not all texts will save a life, but they can simply make someone aware they matter, and they have a friend. 

Keep it simple: 'thinking of you' is a great one, 'I'm here if you fancy a drink/chat/meal/catch up' is another. Just words that show you care and are there without lengthy detail, advice, opinions or conditions.

5. Talk about something ELSE

It is easy to get stuck in a rut of 'illness' talk, there is so much more to someone than their illness, let them know you care about how they are feeling, but don't dwell on the negatives. Instead ask them if they 'caught the show' they like, or talk about their interests, it is so easy to loose sight of your interests when you are struggling with a mental health problem, sometimes a light-hearted chat can be a distraction and reminder of other things in life besides their condition.

6. Activities

Mental illness is as wide a spectrum as physical illness, so obviously there will be activities to avoid depending on the person - for example an agorophobic is as unlikely to want to rock climb as a diabetic is to have a cake tasting day... 

However, this is a general article so personalise the content to fit with the person you know. Some ideas:

Chess, cards, scrabble, crosswords and puzzles are great indoor games that are mentally challenging enough to provide distraction and promote mental wellbeing in people with anxiety disorders as you are helping promote logical thought patterns and concentration techniques.

Meditation, yoga and pilates are a fabulous way to promote physical and mental wellbeing and can be taken as part of an indoor activity with a DVD, an outdoor activity as you learn the skills, or as a group activity if the person want's to benefit from the social side of this.

Fitness and sport, anyting new should be taken slowly, but physical fitness improvement really promoted mental health improvement, please see or mental healthy fitness guides for more.

Special interests and hobbies - it can be a burden to some people, to have an ongoing comitment, however it can also be beneficial depending on the person. For thos who struggle with ongoing hobbies or courses, special interst days such as cheese making, bread baking (see our baking therapy guide), spa days or even driving experiences can be something to look forward to, to do together and to help boost interest levels.

Whatever you do please remember to be careful not to place to much pressure or expectation on the person or the activity. Also remember some day's sky diving may seem possible, other days curling up under a blanket may be the only activity possible... Either way be patient and just be there if and when they are ready.

7. Medication support

When someone is starting or changing medication or dosage, being there for them and understanding they may experience swings and side-effects. Staying over, giving them a call, sitting with them, or just being patient if they seem changeable for a while, can all help at this delicate time.

8. Take care of yourself

While you may feel like your problems come a distant second to someone you love struggling with mental illness, you should always make sure you have your needs met. Take a breather, find your own 'me time'. Try and support your own physical and mental wellbeing with good food, relaxation, sleep and exercise. The better you feel the better support you can be.  

You cannot build a house if the foundations are rocky, if you are to be the foundations in a relationship you must make sure you have some time for yourself to strengthen your resolve as a person and as a friend/relative.

I hope you have found this guide helpful, please share with friends and family and spread the support for those struggling and those (angels) that support them.

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