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How to Cope when Someone You Love Has a Mental Illness

Updated on June 12, 2014


Another warm welcome to another hub about the support and fighting stigma for mental illness. In this hub we will address how to cope with, understand and live with someone with a form of mental illness.

Mental illness can affect anyone of any age, gender, religion, race or orientation but happens most commonly between the ages of 16-30 years old when symptoms start to appear and can be challenging and lifelong. But all is not lost, the outlook is very bright and the majority of people with a mental illness can go on to lead long, full lives.

I am not a medical professional, but someone suffering from Schizophrenia. I understand what it feels like to have stigma put against you and for people to be unable to see you as a person and only your illness. Any hate or abusive comments will be deleted and reported so please be respectful and kind.

Learning to Understand the Illness

It can be devastating to find out that you or someone you love is suffering from a mental illness. Often people who are suffering find it difficult if not impossible to tell their family members, friends or employers they are having these symptoms or they have been diagnosed with something. This only makes it harder. If they feel they cannot talk to you or trust you then something is wrong.

Ways to understand the person:

  • Research their illness. Whatever they have been diagnosed with even if you think you know about it, do some research. It is vitally important you collect as much information as possible.
  • Be open and honest with them and let them now you're concerned about them and you care.
  • Find support groups, forums, pages or places for you or them to talk about your fears. Don't force it on them, they may not want it.
  • Talk to them and let them open up to you as and when they are ready.
  • Be there to help and support them, you don't need to talk every day, you don't need to be actively involved in everything they do with their appointments, but be there to support them whatever the outcome.
  • Be TRUSTWORTHY. I can't stress the trust issue far enough. Do not ever disclose information someone has confided in you to anyone, especially if they ask. Do not tell parents, friends, siblings or anyone, the moment you do you will shatter their trust and it may not be won back easily.

Don't listen to the stigma in the media, television programmes or in the news about people with mental illness. Most of it is just for scare mongering and will only harm you and the person you care about. Here are some basic facts about people with mental illness, I have also covered these issues in other hubs:

  1. The majority of crimes are committed by people who do NOT have a mental illness.
  2. Mental illness sometimes runs in families and has many causes.
  3. One in Four people will experience a mental health problem each year.
  4. Both children and adults can have mental illnesses.
  5. The majority of people with a mental illness pose little or no risk to themselves or other people.

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Jumping to Conclusions

Jumping to Conclusions applies to all different types of things. The first thing people ask if I choose to tell them about my own mental health problems is "are you on any medication?" or "what medication are you on?" and my favourite is, "have you ever worn a straitjacket". None of these things apply to me, I have of course had the choice of medication but turned it down.

You can't just assume someone with a mental health problem is dangerous, is being medicated, will need to be medicated, will have to go to hospital or go into permanent care. Hospitalisation is a last resort cause for people whom are deemed physically or mentally unfit to care for themselves, are dangerous to themselves or other people, or have lost entire touch with reality and are unable to function at all e.g. not eating, sleeping, bathing, self-harming and becoming unresponsive.

Looking at these things in the worst case scenario puts them in a worst case scenario when they may only be in the early stages or they may be coping well. You should ask them and respect their wishes.

  • Never assume that someone with a mental health condition isn't smart enough or capable of understanding stigma, hate, emotions or when you are breaking their trust.
  • Never assume they are intellectually impaired, because in most cases they aren't.
  • NEVER assume they are faking any of it, even if they tell you what the illness is or why they feel a certain way. If you say they are faking it or putting it on or playing on it to get out of doing things, they will not trust you and you could hurt someone far more than you realise.
  • Don't assume they won't pick up on your emotions or body language.
  • Never try to make excuses for their behaviour around their illness, they will only think you're mocking them.
  • Never assume that once they are diagnosed that there is no hope.

Try to be as open minded as possible. This isn't the end of the world, most people can function and live normal lives and don't let what other people tell you impair your judgement or your view of the illness. Jumping to conclusions will only hurt you and your loved one.

Key Points to Understand.

  • When they tell you they can't do something, that they mentally can't do it, don't try to force them. Let them feel safe and only do what is comfortable or you may set them back.
  • Trust is the biggest social issue people with mental illness face. If they tell you something, don't tell anyone else regardless of who they are, breaking that confidentiality will break their trust in you and could set them back and make them unable to talk to anyone.
  • Everyone has coping mechanisms be it alone time, art, physical therapy e.g. spa, writing, reading or playing music. It is very important they are allowed to have these.
  • Learn to recognise the warning signs they are deteriorating or they are about to have an episode.
  • Not all mentally ill people self-harm or are suicidal.
  • Be aware of the suicide prevention programmes and hotlines and keep them in your personal phone and written down privately in case you should ever need them.
  • Standing by someone's side can offer more support than actual conversation, let them know you're there and you care.

What if you can't cope?

There are always services, support forums and doctors willing to help advise and support you on your situation. It may be you are struggling to come to terms with the illness of yourself or a loved one, you may be finding their behaviour or thoughts difficult to manage, you may feel unable to live with them, fear for the safety of your family or feel they need more care than they are receiving.

It can be devastating living with a mental illness or trying to cope with or understand someone else with one. The best way to learn to cope is through research and understanding. Acceptance is the road to recovery for you and for them. Don't pressurise the person suffering, it could only make things worse.

  • Suicide prevention hotline
  • Your GP
  • Samaritans UK
  • Childline if you or the person is under 18 years of age
  • The Crisis Prevention Team
  • SANE out of hours emotional support helpline UK
  • In extreme cases, the police.
  • NHS Direct
  • Google
  • CMHT - Community Mental Health Team for your local area.
  • Reference Books
  • Forums

There are many more and where you are in the world differs but the help is essentially the same. Depending on your choice, you can speak about your own crisis or allow the person suffering to explain. You can call most of these services at any time of day, 7 days a week and they are there to help you. You should speak to someone if you feel you cannot cope with the care or behaviour of the person and need some advice on how to look after them and support them, often a family member or a friend provides more emotional comfort and support than a strange nurse.

The Warning Signs to Look Out For

Giving away personal items
Emotionally Fragile
Personal Hygiene drops
Talking about death
Becoming withdrawn
Becoming withdrawn
Rapid Mood Swings
High aggression levels
Increased depression
Drug/ Alcohol abuse
Suddenly more affectionate
Suddenly ending relationships
Rapid or disturbed speech
Loss of interest
Delusional thinking
There are many more symptoms to be warned of but these are only a few of the basic ones. You need to be sure you know what to look out for with each type of illness to help support the person and prevent a suicide, serious harm to the person or even

The Conclusion

I hope this hub has been of help and support to those dealing with someone who has a mental illness. It isn't all doom and gloom and there is more you can do to support someone than you think.

Important things to remember:

  • It is not your fault, self blame doesn't help anyone
  • They cannot help or control their behaviour/episodes/thoughts
  • There is plenty of hope
  • There are plenty of round the clock services you can contact for help
  • It gets better


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    • xWereWolfx profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from England

      Honestly, my parents and family were frightened when I told them. They found it hard to understand and I don't feel able to talk to them. I personally don't feel support is my issue, it's understanding that the issue is which people refuse to do. Understanding can be the biggest support of them all.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 

      4 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Having several family members, including myself, with mental health issues, I totally relate to your article. It is a difficult row to hoe, and takes cooperation and effort on the part of all family members. We have done our best to help extended family members understand, and then make sure that we are not offended by remarks or efforts to "fix" our situation.


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