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Supporting someone with a mental health problem

Supporting someone with a mental health problem can be a very different experience to being a carer for someone with a physical health condition. Although you may provide some practical support, it is likely that a lot of the help you give your friend or relative is emotional.

You may not even think of yourself as a carer at all. You may just think of it as ‘being there’ for someone. But if your support enables them to manage their everyday needs, live independently and stay safe, then you are their carer. You don’t even have to see them in person; you could provide all your support at the other end of the phone and still count as a carer.

It is also common for other people to not understand or appreciate your caring role too. They may not even realise that the person you care for needs support at all, as mental health problems are often hidden from or invisible to others.

As a result, caring for someone with a mental health problem can be quite challenging. But it can also be incredibly rewarding too.

We provide some advice and guidance for how to navigate your caring role.

The ways that you support someone if they have a mental health problem may be quite different to the things that other carers do for their friends or relatives on a day-to-day basis. The person you care for may be able to get around by themselves and do many everyday tasks independently. But they may need support in other ways to help them manage.

A key way that many carers support their friend or relative is by providing emotional support. Having a mental health problem can be lonely and scary, and it can really help the person you care for to know they are not doing it by themselves.

Many carers for people with a mental health problem worry they might say or do the wrong thing when providing emotional support. Here are our tips:

  • Reassure your friend or relative that you are there for them, that they are not alone and that you care. Just listening to them can make a big difference.
  • Try to put yourself in their shoes, and really understand what they are feeling at that moment. This can sometimes be difficult because the way they experience the world may be quite different to you. If you have never had a mental health problem yourself it can be hard to understand what they are going through. Ask them to tell you how they are feeling, what help they need from you, and how they want you to provide this help. They may find it hard to put into words themselves, so it could help for them to have a look at the Mind website for ways that others have explained their condition to see if any of it rings true for them.
  • Let them set the pace and be patient. If they don’t feel able to talk to you yet, tell them that you will be there whenever they are up to it. Don’t pressure them into talking if they aren’t ready as this could just push them further away.
  • Try to stay calm, however upsetting it may be for you. If you are composed even if they are upset or distressed, it can help to diffuse the situation for them. It will also make them more likely to come to you again in the future if they know that they can talk to you about how they are feeling without you getting upset.
  • Reserve judgement as much as possible, and try to not make any assumptions about how they are feeling or why.
  • Don’t expect miracles to happen overnight. It is common to be frustrated that you haven’t managed to solve their problems for them or make them happy. But mental health problems are often complicated and there is rarely an easy fix.
  • Otherwise try and keep things as normal as possible for them. Continue to invite them to events, keep them in the loop with everything that is going on and talk to them in the way you normally would about what is happening with you.
  • Don’t worry if you do get it wrong occasionally. Caring for someone with a mental health problem is not easy, and everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Just keep doing your best.

Alongside this emotional support, you could also provide practical support to someone with a mental health problem. For instance, they may need some extra help to ensure that they are eating well, keeping active and looking after themselves and their surroundings. Ask them what you can help with, whether that’s cooking them a healthy meal or doing some housework for them. Take a look at our guide 'Helping someone with everyday tasks in the home' for more advice.

Or you could help by doing research for them into their condition, how it can be treated and the further support that is out there for them. Finding information about other things that may be worrying them, such as what financial assistance might be available for them if they have to stop working, could also be a big help.

You could also support them with making and keeping appointments, reminding them to take their medication or keeping their paperwork in order

Another vital role that you can provide is to encourage them to get the help they might need. It is common for people with a mental health problem to not always realise when they need help, or to seek and accept it if they do realise. If you are concerned about someone, encourage them to make an appointment with their GP. If they are reluctant, it could help to show them the pages on the Mind website about talking to their GP and what might happen at the appointment. You could offer to go along with them too. This will not only provide them with support but will also allow you to talk to the GP yourself about the changes you have seen. Even if they don’t want you in the appointment itself, it can help just to go along with them and sit in the waiting room.

Another important way that you can support your friend or relative who has a mental health problem is by advocating for them. This is particularly important with mental health problems as they are still widely misunderstood, often not taken seriously enough and the person you care for may not be in the best position to argue their own case.

For more specific advice about how to support someone with their particular mental health problem, take a look at the Mind website. Under each diagnosis they have a specific ‘For friends and family’ section which can tell you more about how you can help your friend or relative in their particular situation.

Alongside the normal, day-to-day events, you will occasionally encounter things that are out of the ordinary. Although it is not always easy to plan for these, it can still help to learn about them in advance so that you feel more prepared. This will help you to stay calm and feel in control in what can sometimes be very stressful situations.

If you think the person you care for’s life is at risk, that they are suicidal, or may have seriously harmed themselves, then you need to get them urgent medical attention. Either take them to A&E straight away or call 999 for an ambulance.

If you think that they are safe for now but still need some urgent help, then contact NHS 111, their GP surgery for an emergency appointment or a local urgent mental health helpline.

If they would like to talk to someone, you could suggest they call the Samaritans on 116 123 or text SHOUT to 85258.

You can take a look at our guide ‘Planning for emergencies as a carer’ for more information.

It is very common to worry about the financial implications of looking after a friend or relative, and it can be confusing to understand the support that is available and how you can access it. The good news is we have got a full and comprehensive overview of everything from benefits to grants in our ‘Getting financial support as a carer’ guide.

Caring for someone with a mental health problem can be a big responsibility, but many people are still able to combine this role with paid external work as well. If you want to be able to do both, take a look at our guide ‘Working when you are caring’ for advice on how to manage this balance successfully.

Caring for someone with a mental health problem can significantly affect your relationships. Some carers find that they become closer with the person they care for through spending more time with them. In many cases, however, it can put strains on your relationship.

Alongside this, becoming a carer can also have an impact on all of the other relationships in your life too, both positively and negatively.

For advice and support on ways to manage this, take a look at our guide ‘How your relationships can change when you become a carer’.

As a carer it is common to prioritise the person you care for’s needs over yours. You may spend so long worrying about your friend or relative’s mental health that you neglect your own. But it is vital that you make sure you also look after yourself. Not only are your own needs important, you also need to stay well so that you can keep looking after your friend or relative too. Take a look at our ‘Looking after yourself as a carer’ guide for advice on how to keep yourself well.

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