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Caring for someone with a mental illness

10-minute read

If you are concerned that someone is in immediate danger of self-harm, stay with them and call triple zero (000).

Key facts

  • Caring for someone with a mental illness can be challenging and it’s OK to feel a range of emotions.
  • Looking after yourself will help you to stay well and better care for the person with mental illness.
  • Learning about your loved one’s mental health condition can help you support them.
  • A mental health safety plan may help you and your loved one know what to do in a crisis.
  • There are many support services available for mental health carers.

How does a person's mental illness affect their family and friends?

Having a mental illness can affect a person’s family and friends in many ways. As their relative, partner or friend, your experience will depend on your relationship with the person and their specific mental health condition.

It’s normal to feel a range of emotions when someone you care about is diagnosed with a mental illness, including:

  • fear
  • confusion
  • guilt
  • shame
  • uncertainty

Some people also describe feelings of grief and loss for their previous relationship, and for the kind of future they imagined together.

You may need to take on new roles or responsibilities previously held by the person with mental illness. If you take on a direct caring role, your relationship with the person may change. This is especially significant for people caring for their partners or parents.

Following their diagnosis, recovery from mental illness can be a process. People with mental illness may experience fluctuations in their symptoms and their ability to function in everyday life, depending on their stage of treatment and recovery. It’s normal for your role and feelings to change depending on their state of health.

What do I need to know about the person's mental illness?

Every mental health condition is different. Try to learn about your loved one’s mental illness, including the symptoms they might experience, possible treatments and common side effects of medicines. This can help you feel more confident in your role as a support person, as well as allow you to fully participate in your loved one’s ongoing care (with their consent).

Everyone’s experience with mental illness will also be different. Recovery may include trying different treatments or medicines, which work differently for everyone. Try to be patient with your loved one (and yourself) throughout this process.

How do I talk to a loved one about their mental illness?

Talking to your loved one about their mental illness can help them feel less alone and more supported throughout their recovery. Simply being present and available to support them can be invaluable.

Here are some tips for talking to your loved one about their mental illness:

  • Plan the conversation in advance. Think about the best time and place to start the conversation.
  • Be patient and non-judgmental.
  • Offer support but be clear about what you can, and can’t, do to help.
  • Remember that the person is more than their mental illness. Reminding the person about who they are and what they enjoy can help them (and you) separate their identity from their illness.

How can I help someone with a mental illness in a practical way?

As someone who knows them well, you can play an important role in the person’s care. Here are some ways you can support them:

  • Ask your loved one if you can come to their medical appointments. As well as providing emotional support, you can provide another perspective about their illness and treatment. Having another person at appointments can also help them recall what was discussed.

  • If your loved one is receiving treatment in a hospital or mental health facility, help them make plans for when they go home. Ask if you can attend a discharge planning meeting (with their consent).

  • Be aware of the warning signs that your loved one is becoming unwell. A mental health safety plan including these details can be very helpful. If your loved one has made a safety plan, keep it somewhere that’s easily accessible.

  • Offer practical help such as preparing meals, shopping or cleaning, since some people recovering from a mental illness will find everyday tasks overwhelming. But eating well and living in a pleasant environment can aid their recovery.

What is a mental health safety plan?

People with a mental illness may experience periods of overwhelming emotional pain, which can lead to suicidal thoughts or plans. A mental health safety plan contains tools and strategies to help the person cope and get through a crisis.

Encourage your loved one to make a safety plan and share it with you. They may also appreciate your help in making the plan. You might include suicide warning signs as well as coping mechanisms they’ve used effectively in the past.

You can use Beyond Blue’s Beyond Now suicide safety planning app.

How do I look after myself while caring for someone with a mental illness?

Caring for someone with a mental illness can be challenging. It can increase the risk of you developing a mental health condition, as well. Looking after your own physical and emotional needs will allow you to keep caring for your loved one throughout their illness and recovery.

It’s normal to experience a range of emotions when caring for someone with a mental illness. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge your feelings and the effect of your loved one’s illness on your own life.

Consider sharing your feelings with a friend or family member, or seeing a counsellor or psychologist. Some people find it helpful to join a support group for carers of people with a mental illness.

It’s important to look after your own needs. Try to get enough sleep, follow a balanced diet and maintain your own interests.

If your loved one needs a lot of support, you may need to plan a break. Arranging respite care can help you focus on your own physical and emotional needs while knowing that the person is being well cared for.

What are my rights as a mental health carer?

As a mental health carer, there are many services available to support you. Some of these payments and services are national, while others are state- or territory-based.

Carer payments

You may be eligible for Centrelink payments, depending on your circumstances.

There are two main Centrelink payments for carers looking after people unable to care for themselves due to illness, disability, or ageing. These are:

  • Carer Allowance — available to eligible people caring full-time
  • Carer Payment — available to eligible people providing extra daily care (not full-time)

People eligible for either of these payments may also receive the Carer Supplement — an annual lump sum to help cover the costs of caring.

Visit the Services Australia website for more information and to check your eligibility.

Rights at work

Your employer is not allowed to discriminate against you for being a carer. You have the right to ask your employer about flexible working arrangements.

You’re also entitled to take leave to support a family or household member who is unwell. As a carer, you may be able to take paid or unpaid leave. Visit the Fairwork Ombudsman website for more information about your options.

It’s a good idea to discuss your situation with your employer, so you can find way to balance your work and caring responsibilities.

Respite care

Support for respite care may be available via My Aged Care or National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) services. Visit Carer Gateway to find respite care in your area.

Home help

Your loved one may be eligible for home help or meal services via My Aged Care, the NDIS or other state- or territory-based services. Visit Carer Gateway for links to services provided by individual states and territories.

Transport

You, or the person you care for, may be eligible for free or subsidised public transport or taxis. Carers may be eligible for free travel with a Companion Card.

Each state and territory have a taxi voucher scheme — visit Carer Gateway for links to each state’s scheme and to check your relative, partner or friend’s eligibility.

Where can I find more information?

  • SANE Australia has information and support for people with mental illness and their support people.
  • Services Australia has information about Australian Government payments and services for carers, including links to additional services provided by states and territories.
  • Carer Gateway provides services such as carer-support planning, counselling, peer support, carer-directed funding packages and emergency respite.
  • Carers Australia provides many services for carers including counselling, advocacy, education and training.
  • Mental Health Carers Australia provides specialist mental health support to families, carers and their friends.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2022


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