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Supporting someone with a mental illness

12-minute read

Key facts

  • Caring for and supporting someone with a mental illness can be hard — it's normal to feel a range of emotions.
  • It's important to look after yourself when supporting someone with a mental illness — otherwise you may burnout quickly.
  • 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 can I support someone with mental illness?

If you care for someone with a mental illness, it can be challenging, and can affect you in many ways. It's normal to feel a range of emotions when someone you care about is diagnosed with a mental illness. You may feel:

  • fear
  • confusion
  • guilt
  • shame
  • uncertainty
  • helplessness
  • frustration
  • anger

It is also normal to feel grief and loss for:

  • the relationship you may have had previously
  • the future you imagined for each other

There are ways you can support them, as well as take care of yourself.

Caring for someone with a mental illness might mean:

  • providing them with support and company when needed
  • providing constant support through being there physically
  • doing all the daily chores
  • organising their appointments and work/leisure schedules

Caring for someone with a mental illness can cause your relationship with the person to change.

Recovery from mental illness can be a long process. Depending on their stage of treatment and recovery, people with mental illness may experience fluctuations (ups and downs) in their:

  • symptoms
  • ability to function in everyday life

It's normal for your role and feelings to change depending on their state of health.

Mental illness can make even the smallest tasks feel impossible. When caring for a person with mental illness, you may take on responsibilities and tasks that they did previously.

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:

This can help you:

  • teach other members of your loved one's support system about their illness
  • understand what they are going through
  • feel more confident in your role as a support person
  • fully participate in your loved one's ongoing care (with their consent)

Everyone's experience with mental illness will be different.

Recovery may include trying different therapies, treatments or medicines. These may work differently for everyone. 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 supported and less alone while they recover. 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 a time and place where you both feel comfortable.
  • Be a safe space for the person — patient and non-judgmental.
  • Ask them if they want your support and suggestions — sometimes, the person may want you to just listen to them.
  • Remind them that you love them and are here for them, and they are not a burden — they may feel guilty about needing support.
  • Validate their feelings — say things like “I can see that this is hard for you” or “It makes sense why you feel that way”.

It is also important to remember that the person is more than their mental illness. When speaking to them, try to remind them about the things they enjoy. Participating in their interests can help them separate their identity from their illness. This is important to help them recover.

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. There are several ways you can support them.

  • 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. People recovering from a mental illness may find everyday tasks overwhelming. Eating well and living in a pleasant environment can aid their recovery.

Caring for a loved one with a mental illness is a lot to do by yourself. People with mental illness may also need support from a mental health professional, not just from loved ones. You can help your loved one recover by encouraging them to seek the help they need. This may include seeing:

Seeking help for a mental illness can be challenging, but there are ways you can support them:

  • Ask your loved one if they would like help searching for support from a mental health professional.
  • Ask your loved one if you can come to their medical appointments.
  • If your loved one is receiving treatment in a hospital or mental health facility, help them plan for going home — ask if you can attend a discharge planning meeting (with their consent).

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 people 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 healthy coping mechanisms they've used effectively in the past.

You can use Lifeline'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. Your experience will depend on your relationship with the person and their specific mental health condition.

Looking after your own physical and emotional needs is very important. This way, you can care for your loved one throughout their illness and recovery. Take time out and continue to prioritise things you enjoy.

How can I look after my own mental health?

Caring for someone with a mental illness can increase your own risk of developing a mental health condition. Don't be afraid to talk about your feelings, and the effect of your loved one's illness on your own life. You can consider sharing your feelings with:

  • a friend or family member
  • your doctor
  • a counsellor
  • a psychologist

Some people find it helpful to join a support group for carers of people with a mental illness.

It's important to set boundaries with the person you are caring for. If you offer them support, be clear about what you can and can't do to help. Setting boundaries can be difficult and cause feelings of guilt. But it's important to look after yourself and avoid becoming overwhelmed.

By setting boundaries, you can be at your best to care for your loved one. This can also teach your loved on that it is okay for them to set their own boundaries.

How can I look after my physical health?

It's important to look after your own needs. Try to:

  • get enough sleep
  • follow a balanced diet
  • do physical activity
  • maintain your own interests

You can even do some of these things with the person you are caring for. You can try:

  • cooking a healthy meal together
  • going for a walk together

You may also want some time to yourself — that is okay.

What do I do if I am struggling to care for someone with a mental illness?

If your loved one needs a lot of support, you may need to give yourself a break. There are ways you can focus on your own needs while knowing that the person is being well cared for.

You can speak to the other people in your loved one's life about how they can:

  • support the person
  • help you with care

You can also speak to your loved one and their healthcare team about a temporary stay at a hospital or mental health facility if this seems the safest option. Inpatient programs can help a person recover from mental illness with care from qualified professionals in a safe environment. A psychiatrist will need to be involved in making a decision about admission to a hospital or mental health facility.

If you find yourself unable to care for your loved one, respite care with a qualified carer may be arranged. Support for respite care may be available via My Aged Care or National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) services. You can visit Carer Gateway to find respite care in your area.

What are my rights when caring for someone with a mental illness?

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 situation.

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 care)

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

You can 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 a working schedule that will be best for you. You can read more about flexible working arrangements on the Fairwork Ombudsman website.

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. This way, you can find a way to balance your work and caring responsibilities.

Home help

Depending on your age and circumstances, your loved one may be eligible for home help or meal services via:

You can visit Carer Gateway for links to services provided by individual states and territories.


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

Each state and territory has a taxi voucher scheme. You can visit Carer Gateway for links to each state's scheme and to check your relative, partner or friend's eligibility.

Resources and support

Telephone or online mental health resources can be helpful if you aren't able to access a health service or find talking to someone face-to-face difficult. Here are some telephone and online resources to try:

  • Head to Health for advice and to get connected to local mental health services — call 1800 595 212. Check the operating times.
  • SANE Australia has information and support for people with mental illness and their support people — call 1800 187 263.
  • 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 — call 1800 422 737.
  • 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.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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

Last reviewed: March 2024

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