The MHS Journals

Our blog archive of insights and intel


Coping with Mental Illness in the Family

Sep 9, 2020

When someone in your family struggles with mental illness, you may feel helpless and not know what to say. Many people don’t know how to help or where to go to find competent professional care. Because every person’s experience with mental illness is different, there is no one size fits all plan of care. The way you approach the situation depends on the circumstances. However, here are a few tips that may help you cope with mental illness in the family by approaching your loved one in a caring and compassionate way that lets them know you only want to help.

When Should I Be Concerned About My Loved One’s Mental Health?

Mental health conditions usually manifest early in life. About half of those diagnosed with mental health conditions started to display symptoms by age 14, and approximately 75% before age 24. Most people describe knowing that something was wrong long before the diagnosis. While there are some general signs to look for, you know your loved one best and the first to notice changes in personality or behavior that may be a cause for concern. Here are a few common signs that a person may be struggling with mental health challenges.

  • Withdrawing from friends, family, and social activities the person once enjoyed
  • Difficulty functioning in the usual environments such as at school or work
  • Extreme changes in sleeping
  • Drastic changes in appetite
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Problems concentrating or remembering, or illogical speech or thought processes


These difficulties are not definitive signs of mental illness; they could relate to other health conditions. However, if several of these indicators are present, they may be signs that some form of professional follow-up is to keep things from getting worse. The consequences of not seeking help may be severe. For example, 90% of people who commit suicide have a diagnosed mental health condition.

How Do I Approach Someone About Getting Help?

Approaching someone you love about getting help with mental health challenges can be an awkward conversation. The best way to start may be with an open and honest statement that you love them and are concerned for their well-being. Let them know you will be there for them. Frame the comments from your perspective using “I” sentences rather than using “you” statements to avoid putting them on the defensive. For example, “I am worried about you,” instead of, “You need to get some help.”

Conversations about mental health difficulties require a great deal of patience. However, early intervention can help improve long-term prognosis and reduce the severity of mental illness. Here are some goals you can set for your approach to the conversation.

  • Prepare yourself through education. Research diagnoses, symptoms, what to expect from various treatments, etc. to learn all you can. Be sure that you are using reliable sources, especially when researching on the internet. While you want to learn all you can, don’t try to make a diagnosis. Your goal here is to prepare yourself to the extent possible for whatever diagnosis your loved one may receive.
  • Try not to appear judgmental of the person’s actions, even if they seem detrimental to the situation.
  • Acknowledge the person’s feelings even if they don’t seem logical or rational.
  • Encourage the person to talk to a mental health professional or their primary healthcare provider if that’s a more comfortable option. Some people respond better when mental health challenges are compared to physical health diagnoses. For example, most people would never feel any shame about seeing a doctor for cancer or diabetes.
  • Remind your loved one that it takes a strong person to ask for help.
  • You probably know the barriers that could keep your loved one from seeking and following through with treatment. Be prepared with a list of resources in your community to help overcome them. For example, you might find out ahead of time which providers in your area are covered by your loved one’s health insurance plan. If you know that transportation or childcare is a barrier, offer to drive your loved one for treatment and offer to babysit.


What Should I Expect to Experience?

Remember that the family and friends of a person with mental health challenges experience stress, worry, and isolation. You may even feel a level of shame because you don’t know how to help. Here are a few tips to help you deal with the experience.

  • Take care of yourself and be willing to ask for help if you need it, just like your loved one.
  • Realize that you can only do so much and be gentle on yourself if your loved one doesn’t respond as you hope.
  • Seek out resources in your area, such as your local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). They offer groups designed to help the family and friends of people with mental health disorders. Such groups can also provide support and shared resources as well as training for families.
  • Remember that recovery rarely follows a linear path. Your loved one will likely make progress, have setbacks, and move forward again.
  • As much as you want to be supportive and helpful, keep in mind that your loved one must permit you to be an active part of the treatment team unless you are the parent or guardian, and the patient is your minor child.
  • At times, you will feel that your involvement is not making a difference, but your presence and support are meaningful to your loved one, even if they can’t express it or don’t recognize it.


Where Can I Find Help for My Loved One and Myself?

At MHS, we work for our clients’ health and well-being, but we also understand that the welfare of family members is a critical element of mental health. Our experienced team of professionals can help you better understand what is happening with your loved ones and how you can help. Though it’s challenging to face, there is hope for positive outcomes for those who have mental illnesses. For example, 80% of those treated for depression show improvement in four to six weeks.

Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you handle and cope with mental illness in the family. You can also give us a call at (952) 835-2002.

Photo Credit: Robert Kneschke