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Family & Relationships

Tough Stuff: How to Talk with Someone Who is suffering from Mental Illness

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Mental illnesses include many different conditions that vary in degree of severity, ranging from mild to moderate to severe. No matter the condition, it’s not easy seeing a friend or loved one struggle with mental illness, and it can be challenging to find the right words to say.

Vaile Wright, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and director of research and special projects at the American Psychological Association (APA), says that there are, in fact, no magical words. What’s most important is communicating in an accepting, caring, compassionate manner.

“You really want to have a supportive, open and non-judgmental approach when you’re having these conversations,” she says. “Your role as a family member, as a support member, is to be present and to show that you can be trusted to give support without passing judgement.” Wright shared the following advice that may help when talking with someone with a mental illness.

Let them know you’re there for them. Trust and reliability are key in any relationship. Wright says it’s important to reach out to friends and family members to make sure they know they can count on you. “I like the approach of starting with I statements —‘I’m here for you if you’re ready to talk,’” she says.

Choose your words carefully. Be empathetic, and understand that the illness your loved one is dealing with is real, and so are the consequences of it. “You really want to make sure that you don’t unintentionally invalidate someone else’s experience,” says Wright. She advises avoiding dismissive, trite phrases or platitudes, like “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” and “Just wake up with a positive attitude.” Accept that you may not understand what they’re going through, and that’s okay. You can make a difference by trusting their experience without judging it.

Be supportive and flexible. “Ask them what they need so that you can help support them when they’re working toward their recovery,” says Wright. Conversation doesn’t have to always revolve around a malady. “It’s important to remember that mental illness isn’t their entire identity,” says Wright. Go to a movie, dine out, talk about the things you have in common and share topics that bring you both joy.

Educate yourself. Visit reputable sources to get a better understanding about what a mental illness diagnosis might mean. Wright suggests reaching out to organizations such as the American Psychological Association and National Alliance on Mental Illness to learn more. She adds that it could also be helpful to attend therapy sessions with your loved one, or to meet with a therapist yourself.

Talk less, listen more. It can be tempting to give advice and try and solve someone else’s problems. But no one likes to be told what to do. Instead, play the long game. “If they know that you are this supportive person that’s not judging them, that you will be there for them when they are ready, then you stand a better chance of them coming back to you,” says Wright.

Know when to call for help. If someone is expressing suicidal thoughts or plans, says Wright, you need to help them connect with medical help, immediately.   

Remember to take care of yourself. “This stuff is not easy,” says Wright. Sometimes parents or spouses will blame themselves, or experience feelings of guilt, anger, grief and sadness. Wright suggests joining a support group or family program to connect with others who can share their experiences. And be kind to yourself. “Taking care of yourself is equally important,” she says.  


Additional information on mental illnesses can be found on the NIMH Health Topics Pages.

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