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Do you know someone who needs help?

Watching someone you’re close to struggle with their mental health can be difficult. You might not know where to turn or what to do for the best, which can leave you feeling helpless. However, there are a number of practical things you can do to help.

Here, we outline the signs to look out for if you’re worried that a loved one may be having a tough time, and provide tips on how you can support them. We also offer advice on what you can do if the person is reluctant to accept your support.

Signs a loved one may need help

The most obvious sign that a loved one may be struggling with their mental health is if there are noticeable changes in their day-to-day behaviour. These changes might happen all of a sudden, or gradually.

Ask yourself:

  • Is your loved one more anxious than usual?
  • Do they get angry more easily than they used to? Do they lose their temper over small matters?
  • Have their sleeping habits changed?
  • Is your loved one more tearful than usual? Do they seem to get upset easily, even over small things?
  • Has your loved one become more socially withdrawn?
  • Does your loved one seem less interested in activities or hobbies they once enjoyed?
  • Do they have mood swings and you find that you never know what mood they’re going to be in?
  • Are they struggling at school or work?
  • Has their appetite changed?
  • Does your loved one seem to have developed odd ideas or beliefs?
  • Do they ever talk about harming themselves or say they don’t want to be here anymore?

If you have noticed any of these changes in your loved one, this might mean they’re struggling with a mental health condition and need support.

How to support a loved one

There are a number of practical steps you can take to support your loved one if you think they’re struggling.

Pick a time and a place to broach the subject

It’s important that you pick the right time and place to start the conversation with your loved one. Make sure it’s somewhere they feel safe and comfortable, and where you’re unlikely to be interrupted. For example, you could suggest that you go for a walk together or have a coffee at home when it’s just the two of you in the house. If your loved one feels comfortable and relaxed, they’re much more likely to be able to open up to you about what they’re going through.

Start the conversation

A good way to start a conversation about a loved one’s mental health is to express to them that you’re worried about them and give examples of why this is the case. For example, you could say: “I’ve been worried about you lately because you seem to be quite down”

or

“I’m concerned that you don’t seem yourself at the moment”.

Using phrases that start with “I” instead of “you” is a useful technique because it places the focus on you instead of them. This means they’re less likely to feel ‘attacked’ or under scrutiny, and are more likely to feel comfortable enough to talk to you about their problems.

Listen to them

If your loved one opens up to you, it’s really important that you listen to them without judgement. If you’ve never experienced a mental health problem yourself, it can be easy to have assumptions about what they’re going through. However, it’s important that you listen to them patiently, showing empathy and compassion. If they know that they aren’t going to be met with judgement, they will be more likely to share things with you in the future.

Ask them what you can do to help

If your loved one acknowledges that they are struggling, you can ask them if there’s anything that you can do to help them. You could offer to phone their GP surgery for them to make an appointment and even offer to go with them to that appointment as moral support. Or if they’re struggling to leave the house, you could offer to do some shopping for them or order this online.

There may be lots of small things you can do for them that will make a big difference.

Let them know you’re there

It’s important to keep reiterating to your loved one that they’re not alone and that you’ll always be there to support them. Let them know they can talk to you anytime and if you don’t live with the person, make sure you keep in touch with them to check how they’re doing. If they feel as though they always have someone to talk to and don’t have to suffer in silence, this can really help.

Look after yourself too

Supporting someone with a mental health condition can be draining. That’s why you need to make sure that you look after yourself too. Be sure to do something every day that you enjoy or find relaxing. This might be reading your favourite book, having a hot bath or going for a walk. Self-care is really important as, ultimately, you can’t pour from an empty glass.

You could also talk to someone you trust about what’s going on so that you can receive emotional support as well. This might be a friend, relative or a formal support group.

How to help someone who doesn’t want help

During your conversation with your loved one, it might become clear that they don’t want help. They might not even accept that they are struggling or have a problem. It’s understandable that this can make you feel powerless and frustrated. While you can’t force someone to get help, there are a number of things you can do in this situation:

  • Be patient, calm and understanding
  • Let them know you’re always there if they change their mind
  • Give them practical suggestions of what they can do if they decide they do want help e.g. speak to their GP

If you have genuine concerns about your loved one’s safety, for example if they physically harm themselves or are threatening suicide, it’s imperative that you get urgent help by dialling 999 or attending your nearest emergency department.

When to seek professional help

While these tips can be helpful when you’re supporting someone who’s struggling, it’s important to understand that mental health illnesses can be serious conditions that often need professional help. If your loved one’s problems are having a negative impact on their quality of life and ability to function, this is a sign they need extra support.

At Priory, our experts can help your loved one to overcome their symptoms and get their life back on track. No-one needs to struggle with their mental health; we can help your loved one take steps towards a full and lasting recovery.

Blog reviewed by Dr Natasha Bijlani (FRCPsych, MBBS), Consultant Psychiatrist based at Priory Hospital Roehampton London

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