Supporting someone with a mental illness
If you support someone with a mental illness you may face practical, financial and emotional problems from time to time. This page looks at tips and suggestions to help you support someone. This information is for those who care for adults in England who live with a mental illness.
If you would like more advice or information you can contact our Advice and Information Service by clicking here.
- There is no ‘one size fits all’ way to support someone with a mental illness. How you care for someone will depend on you and the person you care for.
- It can help to understand the diagnosis and how it affects the person you care for. Setting out roles and responsibilities together can be useful.
- Be patient. Getting better can take time.
- The person you care for may have very challenging and complex behaviour. This can cause a lot of stress between you and the person you are caring for. There will be help available for both people involved.
- Encourage the person you are supporting to be independent and take part in everyday activities.
- If you live together setting out house rules can help.
- Make a crisis or emergency plan.
- Remember that you aren’t to blame if things get difficult.
- Make sure you look after yourself and your own wellbeing.
There is no set way to support someone with a mental illness. How you support someone will depend on you and the person you care for. The following sections contain tips and suggestions which you might find useful.
Learning about the illness
Learning about the illness can help you understand how it affects the person you care for and might make you feel more confident caring for them.
You can learn about the illness by going to carers groups or services. There you can meet others who may have been through similar experiences and get support and information. Most areas have carers groups or services. You can search online or contact local social services to enquire about different groups.
You can also learn about mental illnesses on trusted websites. Rethink Mental Illness, Mind and the NHS have reliable information about mental health conditions. You could also buy or borrow a book about the condition from the library. You can access our website at www.rethink.org.
Talk to the person you are supporting about what symptoms they get when they are becoming unwell. This might help you recognise if they are becoming unwell in the future. You can talk about what medication they are taking, when they take it and if they have any side effects.
Looking after yourself
If you care for someone with a mental illness, you might find it stressful and difficult. It is important to look after your own health and wellbeing.
You can try some of the following things to help look after yourself.
- Understand what you can and can’t do as a carer.
- Understand what the person you care for can and can’t do.
- Give yourself time to do things you want to do, such as a hobby or leisure activity.
- Try and keep physically active and have a well-balanced diet.
- Keep an eye on your own health and know when you need a break.
- Join a carers or support group for peer support. You can also use an emotional support service if you are unable to get to meetings.
If you are feeling low or stressed, talk to your doctor about this - perhaps talking therapy like counselling, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), or other treatment will help you.
You may have to organise appointments or meetings, if you are supporting someone with a mental illness. There are some things you can do to help with this.
- Keep a diary for their appointments and meetings.
- Keep a diary of medications and times to be taken, checking them off as they are taken.
- Know what benefits you may be entitled to.
- Ask your local council’s social services department for a ‘carer’s assessment’. This assessment will see if you need any services to help you support someone.
- See if there are any local services that can help you with practical support. Your local authority may have an updated list of local carers groups and services. Check their website or call them.
You can find more information about ‘Carers assessments’ by clicking here.
Emotional support & treatment
How do I give emotional support to the person I care for?
Offer to listen to the person you are supporting. Listening to someone doesn’t mean you have to say much back to them or come up with solutions to their issues. Sometimes they may find it helpful to just talk to you about their problems, and to know that you are there to listen.
Don’t be afraid to ask them questions about how they are feeling and listen to their answers. If they aren’t feeling great, ask if you can do anything to help. Make sure you don’t take on too much or that they aren’t overwhelmed.
How do I encourage the person I care for to get treatment?
You might find that the person you are supporting doesn’t want to get treatment. This might be because they:
- don’t think they need help and things will get better on their own,
- they don’t think treatment will work,
- don’t understand they are unwell,
- are scared of what will happen to them if they tell their doctor how they feel,
- are worried what other people might think,
- are worried it will affect their job or studies,
- feel hopeless and
- are reluctant because of past experiences
If the person you care for doesn’t want to get help, it can be very frustrating. Nobody can force someone else to get medical treatment unless they are in hospital under the Mental Health Act. This is sometimes called being ‘sectioned’.
If you want more information about things you can say to the person you are caring for, to try and get them to see a doctor you can look at our ‘Persuading someone to speak to their GP’ document by clicking here.
It may help if you offer to go to an appointment with them and support them during it. If they don’t want you to go into the appointment, you could offer to wait outside the surgery or in the waiting area.
If someone you care for doesn’t want to get help you could try to:
- talk to them about how they feel,
- ask them why they don’t want to get help,
- explain that you are worried because they seem upset, down, stressed or worried and you want to try help them,
- explain what kind of help they could get, and
- offer to help them talk to their doctor or offer to talk to their doctor before their appointment.
If the person you are supporting has delusional or paranoid beliefs, they may feel that other people such as GPs are plotting against them. This is a difficult situation to manage and is common if the person is experiencing psychosis or lives with schizophrenia. It can make things worse if you try to directly challenge the delusions. This might be by saying the doctor is there to help. In the short term you may wish to concentrate on other ways of making sure the person is safe and healthy, and perhaps ask for help from social services.
Some people might refuse to get help even if you try to support them. It is important not to give up and to stay hopeful. It might take a while before they get help.
You can get more information on the following:
How can I help the person I care for stay independent?
When you care for someone, they can become very dependent on you. Over time the person you care for can rely on you for things they could do themselves. Think about giving them more chances to make decisions and do things for themselves. Over time they may become more comfortable making decisions, which may take some of the pressure off you.
You can try the following.
- Set up some boundaries. You can do this by deciding how much you can do and how much you want to do. Talk to the person you care for and try to agree boundaries together. Remember, once you set up these boundaries it is important to stick to them.
- Talk about the skills the person you care for needs to focus on and agree goals. You can agree to show them how to do something and help them with it for a while until they are confident to do it alone. An example of this might be doing their own laundry or going to the shops.
- The person you care for may have support from a Community Mental Health Team (CMHT) or other mental health services. You could talk to their ‘care coordinator’ about their care plan. You can ask if they are doing anything to help them develop independent living skills. If the person is living on their own, you could ask about getting help from an occupational therapist or floating support.
- You can encourage the person you support to use a personal budget to pay for services that could improve their day to day life. A personal budget is when social services assess their social care needs. They are then given money which they can choose to spend on services they need. Types of services could include computer classes or a gym membership. Choosing their own service can improve how they feel about themselves. Some services can also improve confidence and help to establish a routine.
You can find more information about ‘Social Care – Care and support planning’ by clicking here
How do I encourage the person I care for to eat well and keep active?
Diet, exercise and staying active are important for everyone. Staying active, if you have a mental illness can be especially important. It can help improve mood and can help with some of the side effects that medication causes.
You could invite the person you care for to go for a walk, swim or to the gym. It can be helpful for you as well to have a routine of getting out and about.
You could try and work on a diet and exercise plan with the person you care for. This will help to add routine and structure.
If the person you care for can’t leave the house, you can ask them to do cleaning around the house. They can help prepare for meals or do home exercises. You can get free exercises on the internet or borrow DVDs from your local library. Also Sport England’s We Are Undefeatable campaign has advice on moving around in the home:
An unbalanced diet or eating too much or not enough can make getting better harder. You can ask your GP for a healthy diet plan which gives tips and recipe ideas to try out.
Home & money
How can I support someone in the home?
If you live with someone you care for, you might find some of their behaviour difficult or challenging. They might stay in bed for long periods of the day, not wash regularly, smoke a lot or not take their medication. Setting out household rules that everyone agrees to can help. It can be hard to get this to work at first, but it is important to not give up.
Some ideas could be that everyone:
- has to be out of bed by a certain time, for example 9.30am during the week and 11am on the weekend,
- must wash or shower regularly,
- is responsible for planning, shopping and preparing for meals,
- has to clean up after themselves, and
- has to do their own laundry and clean their room, if they can.
Everyone in the household should sign up to the agreements. You need to think about what will happen if people don’t follow the rules. It is important to stay calm but firm when you put the rules into effect and try to prevent arguments.
How can I help someone manage work and money?
Some people with mental illnesses will find it difficult to manage their money. For example, when someone with bipolar disorder has a manic episode, they may spend their weekly budget in one day. If someone cannot control their own money, you might want to think about ways to help them.
You could help someone manage their own money by:
- creating a weekly budget,
- planning what bills need to be paid using a schedule, and
- talking to a money advice service for further tips.
Having some responsibility outside of the house can be helpful. The person you care for might want to find paid or voluntary work. There are services that help people with mental illnesses get back into work and do voluntary work. Unfortunately, these services are not available across all of the UK.
Organisations such as Remploy and Shaw Trust may be able to help.
You can find more information about:
How can I deal with crisis situations?
It is important to plan for crisis situations, so that you will know who to contact in an emergency. Make a personal plan which has information about signs that a crisis might happen and what you can do if it does. There is a sample plan at the end of this factsheet. The sample plan is just a guide about what information to have on your plan. If the person you care for has a crisis plan from their mental health team it should be the first one you follow in a crisis.
If the person you care for wants you to be involved, you can help the mental health team put their care plan together. You can support the individual during the meeting and make suggestions of what might help in a crisis situation.
How can I deal with difficult behaviour?
When supporting someone, you might find some of the things they do difficult to deal with. The person you care for may do things like:
- misuse drugs or alcohol,
- be aggressive towards yourself or other people,
- self-harm, or
- Not take medication
Trying to manage difficult behaviour can cause stress on your relationship with the person you are supporting. Depending on the difficult behaviour you could try:
- having an agreement about using alcohol - when they can use it, what type of alcohol and how much,
- setting up rules about using drugs in the house,
- having clear rules about what happens if there is any aggressive or harmful behaviour, such as paying for any damage done or calling the police,
- learning to spot signs that someone might self-harm and trying to find ways to stop it, and
- taking some time away from each other - go for a walk or go to separate rooms for some space.
If the person you care for has complex mental health needs, you can always ask their mental health team for some specific advice about how to support them.
You can talk about the things you have tried and what you think is not working. Mental health professionals will have experience of managing challenging behaviour and you can think through some things which might work.
You can find out more about:
How do I help someone who is suicidal?
If the person you are supporting is feeling suicidal you can try some of the following things.
- Ask them about how they are feeling and listen
- Ask how you can help
- Take note of any plans they might have
- Be understanding of their situation
- Ask them about things that are stopping them from acting on suicidal thoughts. You might be able to find some positive things for them to focus on
- Make a plan of how they can keep safe
- Get urgent help if they need it
You can find out more about:
Carers UK run an advice line, online support carers groups throughout the UK.
This is a charity which was formed by joining The Princess Royal Trust for Carers and Crossroad Care. Their website gives practical advice about caring for someone.
This is a website where you can find government services and information. The link below has information on many issues related to caring for someone, including financial affairs and carers’ rights.
Your local council may keep a directory of local carers groups and services in your area.