What You Can (And Shouldn’t) Do To Help A Loved One Deal With Mental Illness

Many of us in recovery have experienced the well-meaning interference of friends and family.  But what really helps and what actually might make the situation even worse?  Most people mean well when they attempt to intervene in a person’s experience of mental illness.  They genuinely want to help the person.  But they often don’t know what to do, or even where to begin.

I have had Major Depressive Disorder for most of my life.  I am fortunate to have a great support system of friends and family who genuinely care about me, but I still had some negative experiences with well-meaning supporters.

First of all, people with mental illness or substance use disorders (SUDs) are not lazy.  We cannot just “get over it.”  We have a medical condition that needs medical care.  We are also not stupid.  People with SUDs and mental illnesses are just as likely to be geniuses as anyone else.  So please treat us like adults.  I am an expert on me.  Instead of asking, “Did you take your meds today,” ask, “What do you need me to do to support you?”

Never try to force or coerce someone into doing something they don’t want to do.  This is especially true of hospitalization.  Unless the person is in immediate danger of serious physical harm to self or others, it is a very bad idea to try to force someone to go to inpatient treatment.  It is fine to ask if they want to go to the hospital.  But there are outpatient and respite programs that can be just as, or even more, effective. What we must keep in mind is that any hospitalization, for mental or physical reasons, and voluntary or not, can be seriously traumatizing to a person.  Most of us overreact to a person in mental distress.  Someone who is crying, yelling, talking to themselves, throwing things at a wall, or otherwise behaving in a way that we do not understand, is generally not an immediate threat, no matter how uncomfortable they make us feel.  Also, remember that not all behavior is a symptom.  Sometimes the person is upset because something really bad just happened.  People with mental illness and SUDs experience the same range of emotions as everyone else.

If you approach the person and they say, “Stay away from me,” respect that request and take a few steps back.  Most people need space when they are upset, although some may prefer someone to be close by.  That is why it is important to always ask what you can do to help or to make the person feel safe.  And respect the answer.

Try to learn as much as you can about your loved one’s illness.  It will help you to understand what they are going through.

Finally, do not feel obligated to do something.  Sometimes just sitting with us and letting us know you care is enough to get us through a rough spot.


This post was written by Nicole J. Perefege, JD, a Peer Support Educator at the MHA. Nicole writes curriculum for and facilitates Peer Certification training, Peer 101, Peer CEU training, and other related training.