Giving Support

Women leaning on each otherIf you have a loved one with a serious mental health concern, you probably feel a sense of responsibility to care for your family member. But you may not feel equipped for the job. You are a key player in their support network!

You may be feeling frustrated and powerless. Your attempts to be helpful may be rejected by mental health professionals and sometimes even by your loved one. But there are not enough services available in the community.

Things to Seriously Consider

Keep to a routine and schedule

  1. Be reliable and consistent
  2. Remember the basics: nutrition, sleep, exercise, and fresh air
  3. Set realistic expectations

Often, individuals who have a mental illness live with a lot of mental chaos. They may be confused and frightened. Friends and co-workers may no longer call, or they may respond unfavorably to the ill person. Your family member may fear you will do the same.

Introduce as much routine and consistency as possible. Arrange to come home at the same time each day or visit at the same time each week. Encourage breakfast, lunch, and supper each day at the same time. Work together to arrive at a reasonable schedule. Here is an example:

  1. Get up at 10 a.m.
  2. Have a shower
  3. Eat lunch
  4. Take dog for a walk
  5. Read newspaper
  6. Eat dinner with family
  7. Watch TV
  8. Take medication
  9. Go to bed

Get your loved one involved

  1. Ask, how can I help?
  2. Do things with them, not for them
  3. Encourage others to include them

Individuals with a mental illness have many strengths that help them cope. Build on these. Ask, What has worked best? Who has helped most? Or, Who else can help?

When making a meal, ask if your loved one would like to set the table, cut the vegetables, or stir the gravy. No matter how often they turn down your invitations, keep making suggestions. Make adjustments when possible: invite fewer guests, offer to drive them home early, talk about topics they enjoy.

Be a good detective

  1. Be the “eyes” for your loved one, as well as for the professionals
  2. Keep a diary
  3. Notice when they do positive things

Your loved one might forget to report important details to workers or doctors. Write everything down. Even when you are not invited into a consultation, you can send your written information in to be read. Also, you can ask their family doctor to write things down for you.

Changes in behaviours are clues that things are getting better or worse. These changes may be almost unnoticeable. Keep track of daily routines, changes in sleeping patterns, disturbing thoughts, socializing, or physical complaints. These might give you clues about what makes things better and when medications or supports need to change.

Make sure that you don’t just pay attention to problems. Notice when your family member is trying hard, and keep track of small signs of improvement. Encourage their efforts!

Provide a positive environment

  1. Be as calm and relaxed as possible
  2. Set an example
  3. Respect privacy

You can’t be of help to your loved one if you’re run down and unable to cope. Take care of yourself by reading about self-care (e.g., read another CMHA brochure in this series, visit a bookstore’s self-help section, or visit

Set a good example by not using substances (e.g., coffee, alcohol, and tobacco) to reduce stress. These may seem to work in the moment but can make things worse in the long run.

Go for walks, reduce fast food meals, get to bed at a regular time, and buy bottled water instead of caffeinated colas. Model positive behaviours for your loved one.

Do not treat your loved one like a child. Give him or her space and independence. For example,

  1. Do not enter their bedroom without knocking.
  2. Do not open their mail.
  3. Do not expect them to tell you everything that went on in their counselling sessions.

Separate the person from the problem

  1. Generate hope
  2. Reduce shame

One thing that helps people is the belief that things can and will get better. Some mental illness may not ever completely disappear, but individuals can learn to cope and adjust their lifestyle in order to live with their illness (much like someone living with a disease such as diabetes).

Someone with schizophrenia can be very mentally healthy if they learn to manage their illness. Remind your loved one that everyone needs to be concerned with mental health.

Don’t refer to your loved one as their illness (e.g. he is a schizophrenic, or she is bipolar). Say he has schizophrenia or she has a mood disorder.

Confront stigma when you hear it. Remind people that mental illness can happen to anyone. One in four people will have a mental health problem at some time in their lives.