Supporting a loved one's mental health

As we go through the trials and tribulations of life, it is likely that we will know at least one person who struggles with their mental health. Watching a loved one struggle, whether it be physically or mentally, can be extremely difficult. We love them, we do not wish for them to feel such pain.

We can often feel helpless and long for the answer to “what can I do to help them?”. So, here is some advice and guidance to help you support your loved one, providing them with that little bit of hope to carry on.

  1. Try listening over “fixing”. When a loved one is struggling, we often want to “fix” the situation and end their suffering. So, when our loved one begins to talk, we may automatically think “okay, how can I fix this?”. However, attentive listening can be the most powerful thing of all. Allow your loved one to talk freely. Let their vulnerable words flow. Be present. Hear every single word.

  2. Encourage your loved one to reach out for professional help if they feel ready. Minimise stigma around this. Remind your loved one that this is a strong thing to do. Reaching out is not a sign of weakness. Reaching out for help may be one of the strongest things they (or you) will ever do.

  3. Mental illnesses can very often have the same symptoms of physical illnesses i.e. no energy, lack of appetite and headaches. Practical support with day to day living can often be a really good starting point. Sometimes “I love you” or “I care about you” sounds like “have you eaten?” or “how did you sleep?”

  4. If your loved one does not want to talk, either they are not ready or they find it hard to open up, a simple reminder such as “I will be here when you are ready” will not pressurise them into speaking if they do not feel comfortable just yet. The simple comfort of knowing that you are there will be more helpful than you know.

  5. If your loved one begins to withdraw, it is often not personal. Wait. Be patient. Often cancelling plans will only provide your loved one with short-term relief, but they can often then feel guilt and shame towards this too. A reminder such as “I understand if you’re not ready” will be incredibly comforting for your loved one.

  6. Your loved one may also become irritable or angry. Usually, it is anger towards the world. Not you. This too is not personal.

  7. When they cannot see anything positive in their lives, in a balanced way remind your loved one of their achievements. Remind them of their wins. They got out of bed today? A win. They brushed their teeth? A win. They made it through another day? A massive win. Remind them that they are so very loved. Remind them how important they are to you without making them feel guilty. Depression will often tell them otherwise. However, remind them that depression can also lie.

  8. Strive to be the person you would feel comfortable sharing your feelings with if you were struggling. Show warmth. Show compassion. Show understanding. Show empathy. Show love. Human connection can often save us.

  9. Ask your loved one “what can I do to help you on your bad days?”. Some days, they may need to talk about their struggles. Other days, it may be easier for them to be distracted. Support looks so very different for everyone. What you need when struggling may not be what someone else needs when they’re struggling.

  10. For carers, please ensure to also look after your own mental health too. It is incredibly hard to see a loved one unwell. Validate how you are feeling - we would feel down if our loved one was physically unwell. So, allow yourself to feel down if our loved one is mentally unwell and remember to reach out for your own support if needed.

Mental health struggles are very individualised and so every individual will need support in their own way. However, if you show compassion, warmth and a non-judgemental approach, you are supporting your loved one much more than you may think. We must also emphasise point 10 – whilst it is difficult to watch a loved one struggle with their mental health, we deeply emphasise the need to look after your own mental health too.

Life is too difficult to go through it alone. A famous Vulnerability Researcher once said: “We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as were meant to be. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache… The absence of love and belonging will always lead to suffering”. The presence of love and belonging is the perfect antidote. Reach out. Support others. Shoulders are there to lean on, please use them.

Cara McErlain

Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner