Supporting a Friend or Family Member
It can be scary when someone you love is sick. It can be especially scary if they’re diagnosed with a mental illness. It’s hard to see someone you love in pain and it’s confusing when someone you know well is not acting like themselves. You know how you would take care of them if they had a cold or flu, but what do you do for a mental illness? Like any other health problem, someone with a mental illness needs extra love and support. You may not be able to see the illness, but it doesn’t mean that you’re powerless to help.
Research confirms that support from family and friends is a key part of helping someone who is going through a mental illness. This support provides a network of practical and emotional help. These networks can be made up of parents, children, siblings, spouses or partners, extended families, close friends and others who care about us like neighbors, coworkers, coaches and teachers. Some people have larger networks than others, but most of us have at least a few people who are there for us when we need them.
How Can I Help?
There are a number of major ways that family and friends can help in someone’s journey of recovery from a mental illness:
How do I do this?
Learn more about the signs and symptoms of different mental illnesses. Also learn more about how treatments work so that you know what side effects you may see, when to look for improvements and which ones to look for first. A recent review found that when the family is educated about the illness, the rates of relapse in their loved ones were reduced by half in the first year.
How do I do this?
Offer to make those first appointments with a family doctor to find out what’s wrong or accompany your loved one to the doctor—these steps can be hard if your loved one doesn’t have much energy or experiences problems with concentration. If you do accompany the person, work with them to write down any notes or questions either of you have in advance so that you cover all the major points. If your loved one wants to do it on their own, show them your support and ask them if there’s anything you could do to help.
You can’t always prevent a mental health crisis from happening. If your loved one needs to go to hospital, try and encourage them to go on their own. If you’re concerned that your loved one is at risk of harm, they may receive treatment under BC’s Mental Health Act. It may be necessary in certain cases, but involuntary treatment can be complicated and traumatic for everyone. To learn more about the Mental Health Act, see the “Coping with Mental Health Crises and Emergencies” info sheet.
How do I do this?
If you notice that your loved one is having trouble taking their medication, you can encourage them to talk to their doctor or pharmacist. They can suggest ways to make pill taking easier. If there are other problems with taking medicine, such as side effects, encourage your loved one to write down their concerns and questions and talk to their doctor. If they don’t have a good relationship with their doctor, help them find a new one. If cost is a barrier, learn about BC’s no-charge psychiatric medication coverage called Plan G.
How do I do this?
See our Wellness Modules at www.heretohelp.bc.ca for practical tips on how to have a healthy lifestyle for both you and your loved one. Case managers and peer support workers at mental health centres in your community may be able to help with life skills training as well as connections to income and housing.
How do I do this?
Try to be as supportive, understanding and patient as possible. See our “Where do I go from here?” section for resources on how to be a good communicator.
Taking care of an ill family member or friend can be stressful. Remember that you need emotional support, too. Consider joining a support group for family members of people with mental illness. There, you can connect with other people going through the same things and they can help you work through your own emotions. It’s very important to make sure you are taking care of your own mental health as well.
How do I know when to help?
Some signs that a friend or family member may have a mental illness and could need your help are:
- They suddenly no longer have interest in hobbies and other interests they used to love
- They seem to feel angry or sad for little or no reason
- They don’t seem to enjoy anything anymore
- They have told you about or seem to be hearing strange voices or having unsettling thoughts
- They seem emotionally numb, like they don’t feel anything anymore
- They used to be healthy, but now they’re always saying they feel a bit sick
- They eat a lot more or less than they used to
- Their sleep patterns have changed
- They seem to be anxious or terrified about situations or objects in life that seem normal to you and to others
- They’ve been missing more and more time from work or school
- They’ve been drinking heavily and/or using drugs to cope
- They are talking about taking their life or feeling hopeless
- They are avoiding their close friends and family members
“Tom’s recovery has been an exercise in patience, love and understanding. We take one step forward and stumble two steps back; baby steps—small increments of success, tiny improvements of things we would ordinarily take for granted—are things we celebrate. When Tom smiles, cracks a joke or declares that he wants to go for a run, they are positive, encouraging signs: baby steps forward.”
“The most important thing [families] have to do is accept you completely, with all your faults. Families can help by saying ‘You’re okay, we love you, and you’ll get better”
Where do I go from here?
If you need advice on how to get your loved one the help they need, there are a number of resources available to you.
Visit www.familyservices.bc.ca or call 1-888-988-5281 ext. 204 (toll-free in BC) or 604-988-5281 ext. 204 (in Greater Vancouver) for information and resources on body image and prevention of eating disorders.
Visit www.heretohelp.bc.ca for info sheets and personal stories on supporting loved ones. You’ll also find more information, tips and self-tests to help you understand many different mental health problems.
If you are in distress or are worried about someone in distress who may hurt themselves, call 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) 24 hours a day to connect to a BC crisis line, without a wait or busy signal.
Crisis Lines Aren’t Only for People in Crisis
You can call for information on local services or if you just need someone to talk to. If you are in distress, call 310-6789 (do not add 604, 778 or 250 before the number) 24 hours a day to connect to a BC crisis line, without a wait or busy signal. The crisis lines linked in through 310-6789 have received advanced training in mental health issues and services by members of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information.