When someone is experiencing mental health problems or illness, family member and friends play an important role in supporting well-being.
As a friend or family member, here are some things you can do to support a loved one:
- Learn about warning signs of mental health problems or illnesses.
- Communicate with friends and family members – good communication will help you to decide if what is concerning you is related to settlement stress or if it shows something different that requires professional help.
- Share your own experiences of living with mental health problems or illnesses. For example, it is particularly important when an immigrant is suffering from settlement stress to know that others have gone through similar experiences. Share those things that have helped you to overcome the stress.
- Acknowledge warning signs – let the person know that you notice them or that you have noticed changes in their behaviour and feelings.
- Describe how their behaviour affects you rather than pointing out the problems you see. For example, “I feel sad when we don’t talk for days”, rather than “you are avoiding me”, which could feel like an attack and might produce a defensive response.
- Express your concern and offer an opportunity to talk. Check with the person when the best time is to do so. Look for a private space. Sometimes good conversations take place while walking or doing some handwork (knitting, painting, cooking).
- Listen to what they have to say. Listen to them without making assumptions or judging them.
- Ask questions and try not to give advice – sometimes what is more helpful is to have someone listen without trying to fix things.
- Find what the person believes can help them. Explore what the person is doing and if they have looked for help.
- Offer to learn with them more about mental health problems and illnesses. You can visit with them this page and/or some links that offer more information.
- Offer support by helping the person to look for supports.
- Encourage them to talk to the family doctor. Offer to go with them to their appointment.
- Explore with the person other options of support. Let the person be in control by making decisions of what they would like to do and where they would like to go. Offer ideas such as, exercising, attending a program at a community organization, a cultural event, visiting friends.
Do not :
- Express frustration with the person for having difficult time.
- Minimize their problems or say that things will get better if they have the will power to do so.
How Do I Talk About Mental Health?
Do you need help starting a conversation about mental health? Try leading with these questions and make sure to actively listen to your friend or family member’s response:
- I’ve been worried about you. Can we talk about what you are experiencing? If not, whom are you comfortable talking to?
- Who or what has helped you deal with similar issues in the past?
- What do you think can help you to feel better?
- What else can help you? What can I do with help you?
- I care about you and I want to listen. What do you want me to know about how you are feeling?
- It seems like you are going through a difficult time. How can I help you to find help?
- How can I help you find more information about mental health problems?
What if a friend or family member isn’t ready to find help?
- Avoid confrontation.
- Let them know that you are there for them and they can come to you whenever they are ready. You can leave the conversation open with an invitation to talk to you later if they feel the need of support.
- Ask if they have a person with whom they would feel more comfortable speaking.
- If they don’t have such a person, you might know someone you think is trustworthy and good person to talk to, such as a settlement staff member, a spiritual leader or a respected elder in your community. Give them the information to connect whenever they feel ready.
- Remember, if the person is not in danger or at risk of hurting someone else, you cannot force them to seek help. They have their right to decide how they are going to deal with their situation.
How Do I Take Care of Myself?
You need to take care of yourself in order to support others. If you are supporting a family member or a friend, you might find yourself constantly worrying about their well-being and future.
- create personal stress as you try to figure out where to go for help and how to navigate the system to support your loved one
- worry about financial difficulties or concerns about how your loved one is going to keep going to work or school
- have trouble leaving home or going to sleep because you are afraid of what the other person might do
- be sad because the person you love has changed a lot and it is difficult to have the good times you both used to have
- feel guilty about their problems, and blame yourself for their suffering
It is important that you take care of yourself first. Don’t hesitate to look for help if you feel emotionally upset or face practical difficulties because of a family member’s mental health challenges. Talk to the health care professionals who provide support to your loved ones if you are in contact with them. If not, talk to your family doctor or visit a family resource centre, a community health team or a settlement agency. They will listen to you and offer support if they can or they will refer to the best resource available for you.
Many people find it useful to speak to others who face similar challenges. It’s common in Canada to find support groups for family members of people with mental health illnesses. Your family doctor or staff from a community organization can offer information about them.
Be patient with yourself because you are adjusting to a new situation. It helps to admit that you can’t do everything for yourself. There are many things out of your control. It is a very humbling experience to accompany someone experiencing mental health challenges.
Look after your needs. You can’t help anybody if you are sleepy, hungry or extremely tired. You need time to enjoy yourself, to relax your mind and to gain strength to deal with difficulties.
Many family members of people experiencing mental illnesses have admitted that they have grown in empathy and solidarity. They also find they are able to deal with challenges and enjoy life in many different ways during this process.
The resources below offer great ideas on how to support yourself and understand the impact of mental health on your family.
Are you concerned about the safety of a friend or family member?
If you are concerned about suicide:
- tell them you are worried
- tell them why you are worried
- ask them directly if they are thinking about suicide
- listen calmly and take them seriously
- keep them safe
- connect them to help
If you are concerned about a friend or family member but they are not in immediate danger call the Mobile Crisis Line 1 (888) 429-8167
If you are concerned about a friend’s immediate safety, call 911.
Living with Mental Illness: A Guide for Family and Friends – for family, friends and caregivers of adults living with mental distress or who may have a mental illness. It includes information on how to get help, communicating with someone you love, supporting your family member and focusing on you and your family. This site has been produced for you by a group of family members, caregivers and mental health professionals. It offers information about services in Nova Scotia
Family Toolkit – prepared by Here to Help (Project of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information) (Be aware that services described in this toolkit are for British Colombia residents and not for Nova Scotians)
Learning to Support Friends – from Here to Help (Project of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information)