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Supporting someone with a mental health issue

5-minute read

If someone you know is affected by a mental health issue, support from friends, family and health professionals plays a significant role in their coping and recovery process. You can make a big difference through small gestures, like listening, keeping in touch and showing you care.

How do I know if someone needs support?

It’s not always easy to tell if someone has a mental illness. The signs they may have a mental illness include:

  • they are anxious or worried
  • they are depressed or unhappy
  • they have emotional outbursts
  • they have sleep problems
  • they have weight or appetite changes
  • they are quiet or withdrawn
  • they are misusing substances like alcohol or drugs
  • they feel guilty or worthless
  • you notice changes in their behaviour

If someone is showing these signs, it’s important to raise your concerns with them, even though they might deny the problem and be reluctant or refuse to get help. They may react with anger, shame or embarrassment.

Try not to feel guilty if you didn’t know your friend or someone you love has a mental health issue — the changes can be gradual, and people often hide their symptoms from close friends and family. They may not be ready for treatment straight away. Taking it slowly and figuring it out together is a good way to steer them toward the road to recovery.

If someone you care about is in danger of harming themselves or someone else, call triple zero (000) immediately. There are also a number of helplines and crisis support services that may help.

How can I support someone with a mental health problem?

If your loved one is showing signs of a mental health problem or reaches out for help, here is what to do.

1. Talk about it

We often avoid discussing mental health because of fear, stigma or simply not knowing what to say. But this may make matters worse.

Many of us worry about saying the wrong thing to someone with a mental illness. Your friend or loved one may or may not want to discuss their mental health issues with you, but it’s important they know they don’t have to avoid the subject.

Choose a good time and place to talk, when you are both relaxed, and keep the conversation flowing about other topics too. Try to be sensitive, positive and encouraging.

Let the person know you are there for them and available to listen. Acknowledge what they are feeling and ask them what you can do to help. You can start off by explaining why you’re concerned and offer examples. Try to use ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements — ‘I'm worried…’ or ‘I’ve noticed…’

It’s important not to be dismissive of their mental health issue, for example saying things like ‘snap out of it’, ‘cheer up’, ‘forget about it’, ‘pull yourself together’, or ‘I’m sure it will pass’ — these comments can make a person feel worse.

Try not to blame them or get angry or frustrated. Their mental illness is not a personal weakness or failing, and it shouldn’t define them.

It's important not to:

  • say 'you know how they feel' if you don’t, because this invalidates their experience
  • point out that others are worse off — this is dismissive
  • blame your friend or loved one for changes in their behaviour
  • avoid the person
  • make fun of their mental illness
  • pressure them, if they don’t want, to go out or to discuss their issues with you
  • use words that stigmatise, like ‘psycho’ or ‘crazy’

2. Offer support

Start slowly — try small actions first, such as going for a walk or visiting a friend. You could offer practical support, such as doing their shopping or cooking meals, or invite them out and encourage other friends to see them.

Make sure they are looking after their health by encouraging them to get enough sleep, eat healthy food and exercise. Discourage them from self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.

You can encourage them to seek help by providing information, such as books or brochures for them to read in their own time. You could offer to make an appointment with a doctor or mental health professional on their behalf, and offer to take them.

Encourage them to seek help immediately if they are at risk of suicide or self-harm. If you are worried someone is at immediate risk of harming themselves, call an ambulance on triple zero (000). Stay with the person until help arrives.

3. Look after yourself

Make sure you are informed by reading quality, evidence-based information and become familiar with the signs and symptoms of their mental health issue. This will help you to be proactive and work out the first steps to take.

You can get support for yourself from your doctor, a mental health professional or by accessing support services available to carers and friends of people with mental health issues.

Where to get help

If someone needs help, talking to a doctor is a good place to start. To find out more, or if they would like to talk to someone else, here are some organisations that can help:

  • SANE Australia (people living with a mental illness) — call 1800 187 263.
  • Beyond Blue (anyone feeling depressed or anxious) — call 1300 22 4636 or chat online.
  • Black Dog Institute (people affected by mood disorders) — online help.
  • Lifeline (anyone having a personal crisis) — call 13 11 14 or chat online.
  • Suicide Call Back Service (anyone thinking about suicide) — call 1300 659 467.

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

Last reviewed: December 2020


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