How To Support Someone With Mental Illness (Even When They Don’t Want Your Help)

Helping someone with mental illness who doesn't want help can be challenging but essential to their recovery. Knowing the signs to look out for, ways to start the conversation, and how to take care of yourself in the process can go a long way in giving the support your loved one needs. 

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The warning signs someone needs help with mental illness

People can have difficulty speaking up or asking for help for their mental health struggles.  According to High Watch Recovery Center, between 30% and 80% of people do not seek treatment for their mental illness.

People may not seek help for many reasons, including fear of stigma, feeling that they don't need or deserve the help, concern around what the treatment may entail, or practical issues of not being able to access help.

If you know someone with mental illness, your support can make a significant difference to them seeking help and engaging in treatment. This starts with identifying the signs early so that you may respond appropriately and timely.

Some of the most common mental illness signs and symptoms to look out for include changes in mood and appetite, difficulty thinking and functioning, disconnection, unusual thinking, and behaviors.¹

Although these symptoms may not necessarily mean that your friend or a family member has a mental illness, they may indicate the need for additional support and review by a doctor.

Changes in mood and appetite

A common sign of mental illness is a change in mood and appetite. Some people with mental illness are vulnerable to changes in appetite that result in overeating, undereating, or even a loss of appetite completely. As for mood, the individual may also experience a spike in emotions, especially depressed feelings like sadness and loss of interest in life and those around them.

Difficulty thinking and functioning

Individuals struggling with a mental illness may also find it difficult to think or function. They may quit playing a sport or joining in on activities, stop showing up to work or show up and are unproductive, and may stop performing basic tasks at home. You can identify these changes by looking out for abnormal shifts in engagement and performance at school, work, and home.

Disconnected from those around them

According to the Department of Health, people with mental illnesses are less likely to have healthy social relationships, which can, in turn, lead to social isolation and difficulty seeking help for their mental health.²

If you notice a drop in interest to go to gatherings or join in on social activities, this may also be caused by mental illness. Identifying this sign is key to improving social connections and offering the support someone with mental illness needs to recover.

Unusual thinking and behavior

Changes in thought patterns and behavior are another sign of mental illness. According to Mayo Clinic, mental illness can cause people to struggle with some of the following changes in thoughts and behavior:³

  • Feeling detached  from reality

  • Experiencing confused thinking

  • Having suicidal thoughts (speak with a doctor immediately if you have these thoughts or if your friend or a family member are experiencing these thoughts)

Increased anxiety of worry

Some individuals with a mental illness may experience increased levels of worry, also known as anxiety. Anxiety and worry can be normal for everyone. However, if this level of worry starts to impact your life, this can become problematic.

If you notice your friend or family member spending all day worrying about something small or refusing to leave the house due to worries, this may be caused by a mental illness. 

How to start the conversation about their mental health and encourage them to get help

Discussions around mental health and illness can be challenging to have with someone you love. However, it is really important and can help your friend or family member engage with the support they need. The best way to approach the topic is to plan ahead of time.

Some successful conversation starters may include beginning by saying:⁴

  • "I have been feeling concerned about you lately."

  • "I wanted to check in with you because you have seemed pretty down lately."

  • "Recently, I have noticed some differences in you and wondered how you are doing."

Expect to have many conversations about mental health from this point forward. You can continue to use these conversation starters or come up with your own that are just as sensitive, cautious, and genuine.

Other ways to offer your support include:⁵

  • Listening to their problems and discussing solutions

  • Assuring them of your support

  • Offering help with everyday tasks

  • Including them in your plans, even if there's a good chance, they may decline the invitation

  • Treating them with respect and empathy

  • Continuing to educate those around you and bring more awareness to mental health and illnesses

  • Supporting them to see a doctor

How to take care of yourself while taking care of them

You can't be of much help if your own mental or physical health is declining. Be sure to take care of yourself while supporting a loved one struggling with a mental illness. Try doing the following:

  • Set boundaries and discuss the boundaries. Know your limitations and don't go past them.

  • Make time for yourself.  Read a book, go for a run, or do something you enjoy.

  • Seek a support group. Lending your support to someone you love can often take a lot from you. Speaking with others in the same position may be a great way to receive valuable tips and remind yourself that you're not alone.

  • Get help for yourself if you need it — discuss any physical or emotional struggles you may be having with your doctor, and don't be afraid to ask for help. For instance, a therapist can be a great way to work through your own mental health struggles while supporting a friend or family member. 

The lowdown

Having a mental illness can be a struggle for patients and their families. The best way to show your support in their time of need is to:

  • Know and identify signs of a decline in mental health and get them treated as soon as possible.

  • Have a list of conversation starters to guide you through the process of discussing their potential mental illness and treatment options. 

  • Take care of yourself so that you can take care of them.

If you suspect that you or someone you know has a mental illness, immediately discuss these concerns with a doctor. The sooner you or your loved one seeks treatment, the sooner you can begin to recover. Your doctor can help identify specific causes and help connect you with the best solutions.

  1. Warning signs of mental illness | American Psychiatric Association

  2. Social relationships | Department of Health

  3. Mental illness | Mayo Clinic

  4. Helping someone with depression | HelpGuide

  5. For friends and family members | MentalHealth

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