The role of family and friends

The role of family and friends

Family and friends often play an important role in supporting loved ones with mental health problems but at times they are the cause of unintentional stigma and discrimination.

It is equally important that the person experiencing mental illness recognises that saying the right words and handling challenging emotions and behaviour can be difficult for the loved ones too. They often have little support or people with whom they can share their fears and frustrations.

Things to look out for

If you notice a loved one acting differently then it may be a sign that they are experiencing mental health problems and need your support. Those we have the strongest bonds with might notice that there is something wrong first but don't feel offended if your friend or family member doesn't feel comfortable in sharing it with you. Self-stigma makes it more difficult to engage and ask for support, particularly from those closest to them. This isn't as a personal insult as many people react differently and may wish to confide in a professional, another friend or might not be ready to talk. 

Don't focus on the negative aspects of mental health problems or show that you are scared or intimidated as that will become apparent. You are also likely to need to talk to someone about your fears and concerns and that’s OK. It's more than likely that family members or friends will want to share how they are feeling with someone they trust. They need to be ready to do so. 

Click here to view a guide produced by SAMH on helping friends and family.


A few handy tips to consider when it's time to talk

  • Be there to offer non-judgemental advice and to listen
  • Avoid using cliché phrases such as 'it will pass' or 'just need to occupy your time'
  • Avoid arguments and confrontation
  • Offer to help in any way you can
  • Help out with practical things such as shopping, cleaning, looking after children, collecting medication.
  • Allow family/friend space and time if they need it, don't overcrowd them
  • Don't show concern or fear through your body language
  • Encourage them to seek professional advice when they feel ready
  • Be direct and don't patronise
  • Remember that mental illness doesn't solely define a person
  • Do your own research or speak to someone you trust so you can offer more practical support and are better able to deal with the situation you face 

You may be causing problems unintentionally 

It's distressing to realise when you are trying your best to support a loved one but inadvertently seem to be making things worse by saying the wrong thing. Everyone is unique and while many people may experience far worse situations throughout life, it will prove invalidating to your loved one if you dismiss the distress they are feeling at that time. Be mindful that the severity or experiences of others mean little to them when they are at their most vulnerable.What is going on for them in their own head and life is the most crucial and shouldn't be compared to anyone else. 

Illness doesn't discriminate and neither should we. Whatever you are feeling, don’t lose contact with the person. Make sure you leave the door open for them to reach out to you when they are ready.


A mother's experience

When my daughter started behaving erratically, became increasingly withdrawn, stopped going to work, spent days in bed, crying and sleeping, I didn’t know what to do. I understood she was in a bad place but I also felt frustrated and scared as I had no control and 'couldn't make things better'. She didn’t want to talk. I learned that confrontation was bad for both of us and only made things worse. What I didn't appreciate was that some things I said had a major impact on her self-confidence.

In the early days I kept trying to take over but now understand that she needs her space and has to make her own decisions – even if I don’t always agree. That is a big thing for her - feeling like she is taking back control. I now accept that as long as she doesn’t put herself into a dangerous situation, that mistakes she may make along the way and differences of opinions are OK.

I realise that it was important not to take things personally – recognising that often it was the illness talking and some of her behaviour was out of her control. She now understands that I care and am only trying to help."