It’s tough to watch a loved one struggle with mental illness and know how to best be supportive. Oftentimes we might find ourselves avoiding the situation because we’re not sure what to say or do. We might feel fear about saying the wrong thing and therefore say nothing. The good news is that usually the little things are actually the most helpful.

Saying things like “Be positive” or “You have a lot to be grateful for” usually aren’t helpful even though they might be coming from a good place. It’s very likely that they’ve already thought of that and haven’t found it helpful. You can try nonjudgmental listening and asking questions about their experience to help them feel understood on a deeper level. You could even ask them what you can do that would feel supportive. If your friend thinks exercise might help, maybe you offer to exercise together. If your parent wants to try therapy, you could help them research how to find a good therapist for their specific issue. Often, we just want someone to listen when we’re struggling and don’t actually need or want help with fixing the problem.

Remember that they are more than their mental illness. It can be easy to focus on depression and anxiety, especially when someone is really struggling. Most people don’t want to be defined by their mental health so engage with them around other aspects of their life just as often.

Help support their self-esteem by showing trust and respect. Mental illness often damages self-esteem and you can help with this. Take the opportunity to point out qualities or behaviors you admire about them. Maybe remind them of other times they’ve overcome difficult things and tell them you trust in their ability to continue to overcome hard things.  You could even tell them explicitly how they improve your life and that you’re glad they’re in it.

Get good at setting boundaries. You can’t be of much help if you’re emotionally exhausted. Identify what people and situations make you feel drained and set firm boundaries around how much time you will engage with them. Also identify what people and situations help you feel recharged and set firm boundaries around engaging in those regularly. Remember what they say on airplanes – you need to put your own oxygen mask on so that you have the resources to help someone else with theirs.


Don’t take on too much. You can’t actually fix someone’s mental health and you’ll feel overwhelmed if you take on that kind of responsibility. You might even find it helpful to get some support for yourself from either a loved one or a professional. There’s a big difference between being supportive of someone else and taking responsibility for them and the clearer you can be able that line, the less likely to get overwhelmed you will be. By taking good care of your own mental health, you model that behavior for others and also given them permission to do the same thing for themselves.

Ilse Burton

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