Living with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder  

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Deborah Wiig
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How to help someone with a mental illness
You can make a difference


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If you are a family member, friend or coworker who cares about someone who is living with a mental illness, you can help in many ways. Your commitment to them can help them to feel supported in their recovery efforts, feel safe and begin to enjoy life.

Depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder can make people feel isolated and alone and they withdraw from family and friends. They may feel hopeless at times, finding it difficult to do things they once enjoyed. You can provide encouragement.

How can you help?
Consider your strengths and the time you have to give. You could call every other evening to check in or meet with him or her once a week. You could offer to do grocery shopping or take children to activities. You might help with completing insurance forms and explain benefits. If you’re a good listener you can offer much needed emotional support.

Let your friend or family member know they can count on your help. Tell him or her, "You don't have to go through this alone. I'm here if you need me."

Educate yourself.

  • Accept the fact that the person has a legitimate illness.
  • Learn all you can about their disorder and its treatment so that you can more effectively cope, help, and keep your expectations realistic.

Communicate effectively.

  • Be understanding. Let him know that you care. Engage her in conversation and listen carefully.
  • Use humor when appropriate.
  • Try not to become angry at your friend or family member. Don't get stuck in talking about the past - stay in the present.

Help your friend or family member stay active.

  • Invite her for walks, to the movies and other activities.
  • Encourage participation in activities he once enjoyed, such as hobbies, sports, or cultural activities.
  • Do not push her to undertake too much too soon. Too many demands can increase feelings of failure.

Offer practical support.

  • Cook dinner once a week.
  • Run errands.
  • Arrange a regular time to walk or go to the gym together.

Help with medical needs.

  • Encourage him to maintain professional medical help.
  • Help her identify emotional and physical symptoms.



  • holding handsWith your friend's or family member's cooperation, help her with tracking medications.
  • Talk to him about what you will do if there is a crisis and what will happen, such as hospitalization. Put the plan in writing.

Help them recognize recovery.

  • Point out small signs of progress, by saying things like: "You laughed tonight more than you have in a long time," or "I see you're working in your garden again."

Take care of the caregiver.

  • Spend time with other people you care about.
  • Take time off, if you need to.
  • Talk to other people who are struggling with similar situations, perhaps in a support group.

Protect against suicide risk.

  • To determine if someone is having thoughts of suicide, try asking: "Are you thinking about giving up?" "Do you need help to keep yourself safe?"
  • If you feel there is a risk, seek professional help immediately.

Related articles
Book: Talking to Depression
Understanding depression
When the one you love is struggling
More articles

Families for Depression Awareness
Michelle D. Sherman, Ph.D.
National Women's Health Resource Center and Eli Lilly and Company

Free training for family members

The NAMI Family-to-Family Education Program is a free 12-week course for family caregivers of individuals with psychiatric disorders. The course discusses the clinical treatment of these illnesses and teaches the knowledge and skills family members need to cope more effectively. Family-to-Family classes are offered in hundreds of communities across the country, in two Canadian provinces, Puerto Rico and Mexico.
View the current Family-to-Family course schedule.



Page updated December 1, 2010