How to Talk to a Loved One About Their Mental Health

 Watching a loved one face mental illness can be very difficult, and it can be equally hard to know how to best help them. Societal stigmas have made the process of seeking treatment for mental health issues challenging, and even supportive family members will not always have the time to check in on someone who needs help. Learning how to sensitively approach a loved one battling mental illness and offering support can make a real difference in their life. 

Recognizing the Signs of a Mental Health Issue

The first step in helping a loved one with an undiagnosed mental health disorder is recognizing the signs of illness. Some of these signs may include sleeping too much or too little, irritability or mood swings, low energy, loss of interest in personal care, and more. It's important to keep in mind that all people express distress differently. Trust your intuition if you feel something is off with a loved one. 

Ideas for Reaching Out and Connecting

If you think it’s time to talk to your loved one, reach out and pick a time when you are both calm and distraction-free. Communicate directly and honestly, using “I” statements such as “I’ve noticed we haven’t been seeing each other much lately. Is there something wrong?” Don’t be hesitant to discuss mental health as if it’s a taboo topic. Make it clear that you come from a place of love and want to help, not criticize. They may deny or downplay your concerns at first, but persistence and patience are key in getting to the root of the issue. 

1. Practice Active Listening

When and if they do open up, be sure to actively listen without interrupting. Avoid jumping into the conversation with solutions or personal anecdotes. Let them share their feelings, and validate their emotions to demonstrate empathy. You can ask open-ended questions if it feels appropriate, but don’t push too hard. 

2. Avoid Judgment

It can be hard not to pass judgment when a loved one’s behaviors seem irrational. It’s important to remember that distorted thinking is common among people with mental health disorders. Staying patient and withholding critical or dismissive comments will show that you respect their pain.  

3. Ask What They Need

Once you’ve finished listening, ask what you can do to help in the future. Sometimes people may brush off the offer, in which case you can provide a few suggestions for things that may assist them. Do they need help making appointments? Do they simply want someone to talk to in difficult moments? You can’t diagnose or fix their issue for them, but you can offer support in ways that respect both of your boundaries.  

4. Set Healthy Boundaries 

Helping someone you care about with mental illness can be an emotionally depleting process, especially if you’re the only source of support. If you feel that you’re being too heavily relied upon, there’s nothing wrong with gently suggesting the involvement of a counselor. Setting boundaries and making time for your self-care routine will benefit you and the person you want to help. 

5. Educate Yourself About Mental Health Disorders

Educate yourself on the many different mental health conditions out there, particularly the one that your loved one may be experiencing. Understanding their symptoms and treatment process will help you empathize with their struggles. 

6. Encourage Seeking Additional Support

If your loved one’s condition doesn’t seem to improve, or if they’re experiencing suicidal ideation or depression, it’s best to encourage seeking professional help. You can research local mental health hotlines, support groups, and other resources on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website to provide a good starting point.

Talking about mental health isn’t easy, but direct and compassionate communication can help your loved one feel comfortable getting the support they need. 

Author Bio

Kent Reason is an editor and content specialist with Ark Behavioral Health, a substance abuse treatment provider with locations in Massachusetts and Ohio. Ark offers an array of services for addiction and mental health, including multiple levels of care and evidence-based treatment options. 


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