How to Support a Loved One with Mental Illness
It’s hard to see someone you love in pain. Instinctively, we look for ways to help and
ease their symptoms. If they have a cold, we know rest, some added Vitamin C, and a
bowl of homemade soup can make a difference. Sprains are treated with cold and hot
compresses to reduce swelling, and over-the-counter pain meds usually relieve a
But, what do you do if the ailment is not physical but mental?
Mental health can be much harder to see but no less debilitating. In any given year, 1 in
5 Canadians experiences a mental illness. By the time they reach 40 years of age, the
number of people who have - or have had - mental health issues grows to 1 in 2. And,
just like any physical sickness, support from family and friends is an essential part of
their recovery. While homemade soup may not be the answer, there are many ways to
support someone during their mental health journey.
The more you know, the more you will be able to provide informed suggestions to a
loved one. Not knowing how the illness functions can create misconceptions and
prevent you from giving effective help. However, it’s important to carefully consider the
source of your information, especially when searching online. Not all information online
Seek out reliable resources
Finding reputable resources is the best way to educate yourself about a loved ones
illness. Local support groups are a great source of experience and trusted resources.
But, you may need to try more than one to find the right fit. Just starting out?
The following websites may provide some insight:
Be involved with your loved ones treatment plan
Where possible, meet with your loved one’s psychotherapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.
Under Canadian law, an adult’s healthcare team can’t share any medical information like a
diagnosis or treatment without the permission of that adult. But, if your loved one is ok with
it, it’s still worth it to introduce yourself. Let them know that you are part of your loved
ones support team and are interested in ways to help them succeed in their treatment,
whether that just be getting them to their appointments on time or encouraging healthy
lifestyle choices and coping strategies. Most medical staff will welcome your
involvement if your loved one has given the go-ahead.
Know that you are not alone
As with any illness, you’re bound to feel many different emotions once your loved one is
diagnosed. Many family members and close friends feel guilty that they didn’t see it
sooner. These are natural feelings. It’s important to remember that most mental
disorders, like bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety are caused by a number of
complex factors, including genetics and chemical imbalances in the brain. So, while
feelings of guilt are common, we want to remind you that they shouldn’t be.
Celebrate small victories
The power of positive thinking can make a real difference. This doesn’t mean you’re
going to ignore the difficulties you and your loved one face, but rather that you choose
to approach things with a positive outlook. You see the glass as half full rather than half
empty. Once a treatment plan is in place, recognize the small victories along the way.
Remember your actions influence those around you. Be calm, patient, and
Set appropriate limits
Supporting a loved one with a mental illness can be difficult. It’s often hard to know if, in
our attempt to help, we are engaging in enabling behaviours. The term “enabler”
generally describes someone whose actions allow a loved one to continue in self-
destructive behaviour. Most people do it without even knowing it. Setting boundaries will
help. And, while it may feel counterintuitive, it must be done, both for the person you
support, and for yourself. Continue to be their advocate, but also keep in mind your well-
being and needs in order to prevent burnout and compassion fatigue.
Despite growing awareness of the burden associated with mental illness, and the
availability of cost-effective treatments, they are not yet afforded the same policy or
program priority as comparably disabling physical conditions. Get involved in the
political process of improving our mental health system. Provincial, municipal, and
federal elections provide opportunities to get mental health on the agenda of candidates
and political parties. Ask your candidates what their stand is on the key issues facing
people with mental illness.
At Toronto Psychotherapy Space we offer free 20-minute psychotherapy consultations
to help match you with the right therapist. Please fill out the contact form located on our
website and our Care Coordinator will contact you as soon as possible.