• No one is to blame when a person is affected by mental illness
  • Sometimes caring for a family member or friend can be overwhelming, and it can be helpful to seek support from a support group or counsellor

Family and friends of someone living with a mental illness often share similar experiences. People living with mental illness can be helped in many ways by family and friends. It is not uncommon for family and friends to focus a large portion of their attention and energy on their loved one. However, it is important to look after yourself too.

Getting help early for mental illness

Don’t ignore warning signs of mental illness in a family member or friend. The sooner the person receives support and treatment, the better the outcome is likely to be. It can help to:

  • Encourage the person to speak with doctor about their concerns.
  • Speak with your own doctor about your concerns and what options might be available if the person is reluctant to see their doctor.

Common reactions to mental illness

Mental illness often has a ‘ripple effect’ on families, creating tension, uncertainty, stress and sometimes significant changes in how people live their lives. Different family members are likely to be affected in different ways. 

It's normal to feel a whole range of emotions, such as guilt, fear, anger and sadness. Acknowledging these feelings can be the first step towards working through them. 

No one is to blame when a person is affected by mental illness.

Taking care of yourself

Sometimes caring for someone living with mental illness can increase your own risk of mental and physical ill health. It is important to look after yourself and know your limits.

It can be helpful to:

  • Learn as much as you can about mental illness, treatment and what services are available in your area. This also helps in understanding what's going on for your loved one and knowing how you can help.
  • Find out if there are education and training courses for carers that you can attend.
  • Understand that symptoms may come and go, and vary in severity. Different levels of support may be required for yourself and your loved one at different times.
  • Develop a sense of balance between your own needs and the needs of the person you care for.
  • Consider contacting a support group for carers or relatives and friends of people with a mental illness.

It might be helpful to decide what level of support and care you are realistically able to provide to the person. Engage in a supportive conversation with your family member or friend (as well as mental health professionals) about the type of support you can provide. This can help ensure that the type of support you are unable to provide can be arranged in another way.

Talk to the person’s doctor or case manager about what types of support are available. This might include rehabilitation programs, or NDIS eligibility.

Structure can be an important part of developing and maintaining good self-care strategies as well as supporting the recovery for people living with a mental illness. Plans may include:

  • develop predictable routines – for example, regular times to get up and eat. Introduce gradual changes to prevent boredom
  • break tasks into small steps – for example, discuss with the person what steps would help with daily self-care
  • try to overcome a lack of motivation – for example, encourage and include the person in activities
  • encourage the person to make decisions – sometimes this can be difficult for a person who is unwell, or they may keep changing their mind. Try to resist the temptation to make the decision for them.

Supporting someone who may have suicidal thoughts

If you think a friend or relative is at risk of suicide, discuss your concerns with them openly and non-judgmentally. Rather than putting the idea of suicide into someone’s head, a supportive conversation gives them the opportunity to talk about their distress. Encourage, or help, the person to access professional help, such as their mental health professional. To stay safe, suggest they contact a helpline such as:

  • Lifeline Tel. 13 11 14 (24 hours) 
  • Suicide Call Back Service Tel. 1300 467 354 
  • SuicideLine Tel. 1300 651 251 (24 hours)
  • Kids Helpline (for people under 25) Tel. 1800 55 1800 (24 hours).

If the person is at serious risk of suicide, stay with them if possible and contact the psychiatric emergency team at your local hospital. Or, call 000 and explain that the person is suicidal, has made a plan, and you have concerns for their safety. Keep these numbers readily available in case you need urgent help.

Managing aggressive or violent behaviour

Aggression and violence are not necessarily common features or symptoms of mental illness. But they can be associated with mental illness, because of the higher likelihood of experiencing emotional states that can lead to episodes of aggression or violence (such as periods of confusion, distress or high emotional arousal). 

If someone is persistently aggressive, report any actual or threatened violence to their treating health professionals immediately (and the police, if necessary). If you live with someone who is persistently aggressive, you may need to seriously consider ways you can stay safe, including possibly living apart.

Where to get help

More information

Mental illness

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Mental illness explained

Types of mental illness

Living with mental illness

Content Partner

This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by: SANE Australia

Last updated: October 2019

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