Learning that a loved one has a mental health issue can feel heavy. They may be aware of the state that they're in, or they may be using work, substances, or other means as distractions from the root of the disruption. Regardless, you may feel responsible for giving your loved one the mental heath boost they need.
Need help navigating your role in someone else’s mental health journey? Let’s explore ways to support a loved one together.
First, what should your role be?
It’s not easy to find your role in another person’s struggle - especially when it comes to mental health. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to support someone on their mental health journey so long as you’re respecting yourself and each other in the process. Read on to explore ways to provide emotional, practical, and professional support.
Before we begin, remember to greet yourself with the same self-care and compassion as you are motivated to meet the people in your life! After all, supporting a loved one is hard work, and it requires self-care too. Need help filling up your own cup? Check out 10 self-care practices our team loves here.
4 ways to provide mental health support
Depending on the circumstances, your resources, and your own needs, it may make sense to provide emotional support, practical support, professional support, or emergency support. Read on to explore all three in greater depth.
1. Emotional support
Emotional support provides space for a loved one to navigate their mental health challenges, but it’s important to support yourself in the process. Providing emotional support requires strong boundaries, so you’re able to hold space for someone else’s needs in addition to your own. Here are a few ways to provide emotional support to a loved one:
- Hold space! Practice active listening as a way to hold intentional space for a loved one. Use your body language to demonstrate your focus. This attention will help them know that their presence, thoughts, and feelings are valued. It’s often more valuable to listen than to speak. Allow your loved one to explore their own journey in the safety of the patient, caring, and quiet space you create.
- Respect boundaries! It’s important to meet your loved one with autonomy and choice at every step. Their mental health journey is theirs alone, and you have no control over it. While you might feel impacted by it, you have no ownership over their struggle or how they cope with it. Don’t apply undue pressure. Instead, establish healthy boundaries for yourself and respect your loved one’s timeline. Afterall, everyone’s healing timeline looks different.
- On that same note, provide perspective! A gentle reminder that healing isn’t linear, that everyone’s journey is unique, and that they don’t need to have all of the answers right now, can be a supportive gesture. Hold space for the unique nature of their journey, and remind them that ups and downs are natural.
- Lead by example. Meet yourself with the same level of care, kindness, generosity, patience, and compassion that you wish your loved one to experience. It’s important to care for yourself while caring for others.
2. Practical Support
Beyond emotional support, providing practical support for a loved one struggling with their mental health can be helpful. Practical support requires attention and awareness to your loved one’s needs, and it’s important that you provide them with autonomy and choice every step of the way. This means that you respect their decisions even if they differ from your own. Here are a few ways to provide practical support to a loved one:
- Set expectations! There’s no “fixing” a mental health issue, and it’s important to be realistic about your goals up front. Helping a loved one “solve” a struggle puts both of you at risk of undue pressure and harm. Instead, focus your goal on your loved one’s own image of wellbeing. Ask them what they want to achieve and how you can support them before diving into solutions mode (which may or may not be useful at all!).
- Ask questions! Open a dialogue to gain a stronger understanding for what your loved one is going through - and put solutions on the backburner until you do. It’s important to avoid making assumptions and to let your loved one set their own goals. Ask them what they’re feeling and what would be most supportive. Establish an open, transparent, caring, and nonjudgmental tone. If they ask for specific, solutions-based support, provide it and respect their wishes (not your own!) Listen before you act.
- Do your research! The burden of mental health struggle often falls on the person struggling. Rather than push your own ideas on a loved one, dive into researching all the ideas. There are experts who know more than you do, who’ve been in your position before, and who want to help you avoid triggering someone you care for. Chances are, you could benefit from learning more about the mental health issue your loved one is facing (and Google is a great place to get started!) Remember that the most important expert is your loved one themselves. Learn more about their struggle as a way to demonstrate your care, and not as a way to control their healing journey.
- Explore options together! Allow your loved one the space and autonomy to navigate their own journey, but offer to accompany them as they explore their options. This might mean providing a list of online or in-person resources, crowdsourcing therapy recs, or attending a community fitness class or support group by their side. Providing transportation, encouragement, or accompaniment are all forms of practical support.
3. Professional support
Ultimately, you may wish to encourage a loved one to seek professional support, such as the guidance of a psychiatrist or therapist. Remember that it’s up to your loved one to define their own needs, and your role as a support system is to follow their cues. Here are a few ways to support your loved one with professional support:
- Do your research! There are lots of ways to seek professional support these days, and it may be helpful for you to do some research on your loved one’s behalf. Not sure where to begin? Explore different kinds of therapy here.
- Provide your loved one with options for mental health screenings and referrals to mental health practitioners if you’re familiar, or direct them to a helpful database. Organizing some helpful resources will make the process less intimidating and more easily approachable. Be sure to provide this information in a supportive, low pressure, and nonjudgmental way. After all, seeking professional support is a personal decision, and it’s important not to pressure your loved one.
- Connect with locals! There are support groups and meetups specifically to help you navigate a loved one’s journey. Social and mental health services vary based on location, so it can be helpful to go local. Take advantage of crowdsourced resources and remember to provide yourself with community support along the way. Caring for someone else is hard, and it’s critical to care for yourself in the process.
4. Emergency support
If your loved one is experiencing a mental health emergency, and you fear for their (or anyone else’s) safety, it’s important to act swiftly. Here are some emergency services available to support you and your loved ones:
- Call 911 for immediate police intervention and access to emergency services/
- Reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255 (TALK).
- Text "Leda" to 741741 to speak with a trained Crisis Counselor for free, 24/7 in partnership with Crisis Text Line.
- Call 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), The National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine.
- Call SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
- The National Library of Medicine (NLM) MedlinePlus has directories and lists of organizations on its website to help identify health practitioners.
- Reach the disaster distress helpline at 1-800-985-5990. They provide immediate crisis counseling for people experiencing emotional distress.
Remember to care for yourself first!
In the process of caring for others, you may find yourself feeling depleted! Consider planning a solo date or kickstarting an evening routine to keep yourself grounded. It’s easy to get caught up in someone else’s struggles, but your wellbeing is just as important! We support you in caring for yourself as you care for others. And if you need some extra inspiration, check out 10 ways our team practices self-care during hard times!