Worried about a loved one’s mental health? Here’s how you can help

May 15, 2020
There are many ways to support someone you care about through a mental illness. Source: Getty.

Mental illness is a common health problem, with almost half of all Australians aged 16 to 85 years expected to experience mental illness at some point in their life.

Supporting a friend or family member with a mental illness is no easy task, but if you’re concerned about a loved one’s mental health, the good news is there are things you can do to help. With the help of Dr Kieran Kennedy, we’ve looked at the best ways to support someone living with a mental illness.

What are the signs of mental illness?

All of us have bad days from time to time, however, Dr Kennedy says it’s really important to know the difference between feeling sad and something more serious, like depression. He says your loved one is most likely suffering from a mental illness if they’re experiencing low moods for at least two weeks or more, or they no longer have interest in things they used to enjoy.

How do you support someone with mental illness?

Dr Kennedy says the most important thing to do is to be there, and to listen. “Listening is a big one, and something we often bypass when thinking about how we can support a loved one who’s suffering,” he says.

Don’t assume you know what the person needs either. Dr Kennedy suggests asking them what you can do to help instead. “This allows someone not only to feel heard, but to have a sense of control in the situation,” he says.

It’s also a good idea to encourage a healthy lifestyle. Dr Kennedy suggests people with mental illness could benefit from exercising, keeping a regular sleep schedule and following a balanced diet. “Offer to go for a walk or encourage some form of gentle exercise together,” he says.

You could also encourage them to seek help from a medical professional. Dr Kennedy says offering to go the GP with them or making the appointment on their behalf can be huge. “One of the biggest things we can do is support someone we love to seek help and advice for what they’re going through,” he says. “Be honest that you’re worried, and reassure that there’s no shame in seeking help.”

What doesn’t help?

 If someone’s struggling, try to help them and avoid blaming them. Placing the blame on the person who’s suffering just makes it worse. Meanwhile, be careful with the words you choose. If you don’t know what to say, sometimes it’s better to say nothing. “Sentiments around ‘you’ll be right’ or ‘you just need to snap out of it, and get some fresh air’ often come from a loving and well-meaning place, but can worsen how someone’s feeling,” Dr Kennedy says.

As a rule of thumb, he says to take your time to listen, and be guided by what your loved one wants to talk about and say. “[You] may need to start the convo, but avoid pushing or lecturing.”

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