Caring for someone with a mental health problem

Families and partners have an essential role to play in the recovery and on-going support of someone with a mental health problem. Positive family support has been shown to reduce the incidence of relapse, improve the person’s quality of life, which in turn, allows the carer’s role to be that much easier. Although caring for someone with a mental health problem can be challenging and emotional, with the right support it needn’t be so difficult and can be very rewarding.

Any health issue whether physical or psychologically based can be devastating to the person who is experiencing the symptoms but also to the family who care and offer support. Often it’s easier for us to understand more tangible symptoms such as physical pain, reduction of mobility, reduction of appetite, poor sleep as we can more easily relate to them. However, symptoms of mental illness often manifest as physical symptoms, as well emotional difficulties.

Take depression for example, one of the most common mental health problems that most of us can relate to. When we are depressed , we may feel extremely tired, have poor sleep or want to sleep all the time, appetite is changed, interest in things you usually enjoy is reduced, and there is often an increase in general aches and pains. In addition to this people with depression often describe their simple cognitive (thinking) processes being slowed down, such as memory and concentration. We may feel very negative about ourselves, our lives, our achievements and sometimes to the point when we question if life is worth living. This mental anguish therefore compounds the physical symptoms.

Caring for someone with a complex set of symptoms can be difficult; to see someone you love in pain, distress and often lead the carer to feeling at a loss because sadly there is no magic wand or ‘quick fix’. Yes, most people get better, or certainly learn how to manage symptoms but this takes time, patience on the part of the 
individual and the people that care for them. However, imagine how satisfying it is to walk with someone on their journey from a place of depression; to watch the cloud lift and both of you witness the emergence of the person who know and love.

How can you help to best support someone? This can range from giving them emotional support by listening to them and showing them appreciation, for example, providing them with the practical help they need to live their day to day lives, and acting as an advocate at appointments.

Get Informed

Our previous ‘Family Matters’ article ‘Demystifying Mental Illness’ discussed, the stigma misinformation regarding mental illness that exists. Knowledge is power and the Internet now gives us access to a vast amount of information, just make sure you go to reliable trustworthy sites. Find out about the condition/illness, treatment, and advice. Many web-sites have a carers section, often with an online blog so you can share experiences and get support. Your Doctor and mental health professionals are also a good source of knowledge but don’t be afraid to ask, or advocate on your loved one’s behalf. Sometimes it’s easy to be a bit intimidated by Doctors and other professionals, but you have the right to ask questions and be informed. Make a list of questions before the appointment as it’s easy to forget. A good professional will only be too happy to help you learn more, if they’re not then you may wish to rethink your health provider.

Communication is key

Listening is a real skill, and people often have a need to talk to someone about what they are experiencing. Try not to interrupt to talk about yourself or your own experience or tell the person what they should do, or how they should feel. This can feel judgemental and critical, of course you may have some good ideas, and one way to get your understanding across; called empathy, is to say something like; “that sounds really difficult, I can understand why you might be thinking that’. Once we have conveyed that we understand and are on the person’s side then you are in a stronger position to make considered suggestions or give advice.

By listening, the person may feel able to talk in a way that could help them feel better, think about how good it can feel to ‘vent’. Alternatively, they may express emotions in a physical way: by crying, or getting flustered and agitated, or even by laughing. Releasing feelings in this way may help them to be more relaxed and to think more clearly. This is a good time to offer reassurance and encouragement (“I want to hear about it”, “It’s good that you’re crying”). Asking the right questions can help people to reach the most important things (“What’s really bothering you?”, “Why do you think you are feeling like this?”).


We can all benefit from receiving praise. This particularly applies to someone who has lost their self-confidence. Someone who has been used to leading a ‘normal’ life can find it difficult to give themselves credit for even the smallest, but important achievements, such as getting up on time, remembering to take medication without being prompted, going out on their own, trying something new. Successes such as these need to be recognised for what they are: brave and significant steps on the road back to recovery and appreciation from you may help them to feel good and be ready to make more progress.


Being touched can help us feel safe, valued, secure and loved. It can also help bring buried feelings to the surface; a warming hug can turn tension into tears. Unfortunately, some people may have had such bad experiences of being touched that they find this contact difficult, for example is someone was intimately touched in ways they did not want. As a partner, friend or family member, it’s therefore important to find a way of touching that feels right for both of you that is relaxing and reassuring. You might hold the person’s hand while they talk, or touch their arm when you say good-bye.


Laughter is the best medicine, we feel better after a good laugh, and this applies as much to people who are experiencing mental distress as to anyone else. You don’t always have to be serious to show that you care. Sometimes it’s good to do something that helps people forget about their problems for a while, such as watching a film you know they will enjoy, or reminding your friend of amusing things you did together. Being light-hearted is different from trying to force someone to ‘pull themselves together’, which is never useful.

Practical help

Someone who is feeling down, anxious or unwell emotionally can find it difficult to do day-to-day tasks like shopping, cooking, cleaning and paying bills. Simple practical tasks we take for granted can feel overwhelming. It can therefore be a great relief to have some help from someone, and this can be a great way of showing them you care. Having said that, it’s important not to take over, and leave the person feeling even more inadequate; so do things together.

Look after yourself to look after others

It’s important to think about what you need and acknowledge how important and difficult the job is, especially if you are used to putting someone else first. First of all it’s important to take care of the basics to ensure your physical and emotional wellbeing. This means ensuring you get enough sleep and rest, making healthy food choices, exercising, socialising and doing the things you enjoy to relax. If you feel you are taking up the’ lions share’ of the caring role then consider calling a family meeting to spread things out more evenly. In addition to this finding someone to talk to is important, this may be a friend, partner, counsellor or via a support group. If there isn’t a local support group then many websites have online network support forums which can be useful given our small island community.

Caring is an important and often unsung role, look after your loved one but don’t neglect your own needs to maintain that all important life balance.

If you would like to discuss this or any other issue then contact one of our professional counsellors at EAP for a confidential appointment on 949-9559,

Comments are closed.