3 ways to help and support a loved one living with mental illness.

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When a loved one is battling a mental illness, it’s often hard to know how to offer the best kind of support.

It’s not like they have a cold, where you can just drop over a pot of chicken soup. There are moments when your friend or family member might seem like a different person altogether, which makes being a supportive friend even more complex.

With 45 per cent of Australians experiencing a mental illness at some point in their lives, and 20 per cent of Australian suffering from a mental illness in a 12 month period (according to SANE Australia), it’s never been a better time to learn how we can support our loved ones with mental illnesses.

Focussing on the positive aspects of your relationship is a great start, according to psychotherapist and counsellor Melissa Ferrari. Below are more of her expert tips on how to support a loved one with a mental illness.

1. Ask your friend about their needs.

We are often at a loss for helpful words or gestures when those we love hit their lowest point. Seeing our friend crying or extremely angry is distressing. It’s often tempting to do one of two extremes: avoid the problem until they’re better, or smother them with love. But surprisingly, it’s the simplest actions that work best.

“Check out with them what they may need from you,” recommends Ferrari. “Ask them, ‘Would you like me to stay and talk with you or do you prefer I leave and call you later?’”

Giving your friend the permission to tell you what they need will be both reassuring and comforting, and hopefully pave the way to more positive, caring conversations.

Watch: Mia Freedman shares how she manages her generalised anxiety disorder. (Post continues after video.)


2. Offer to find a professional who can help.

As your friend wrestles with their mental health, they may feel it is too difficult to arrange professional help. This is an area where you can help them, but make sure you approach the conversation with positivity and love. Ferrari suggests a good starting point is your mutual friendship.

“Let them know how much you cherish the relationship you both have. Talk to them about all the great times you have shared together and how much you value them as a person and friend,” she suggests.

From this point, you could then explain your concern and ask if they need help finding someone to help them professionally, such as a GP, counsellor or psychologist. Again, good support all begins with asking your friend what they actually need. (Post continues after gallery.)

 3. Focus on the positive, and establish boundaries.

To be a source of strength and friendship, it’s important to ensure you don’t get overwhelmed or overly burdened during this difficult time. Setting boundaries can be helpful for both you and your friend.

A successful relationship requires careful thought and planning. Ferrari’s advice is to “set boundaries for yourself around how much you will invest in the relationship. Only do what feels right in the relationship.”

Be wary of slipping into conversational ruts that have a constant focus on negativity. After your friend has talked about what’s troubling them, gently bring around the conversation to other topics.

“Focus on the good parts of your relationship, keep bringing them back to things you like to talk about as well,” suggests Ferrari.

What are your tips for supporting a loved one with a mental illness?