Those who have a family member, significant other, or friend with a serious mental disorder often ask
how they can be helpful to that Person. Despite their desire to help, family and friends may find
themselves experiencing feelings of frustration, helplessness, resentment, and anger. The following
suggestions have come from talking with patients about the ways that people in their support system can
Be patient! Changing behavior patterns can be a long process and is very hard work. Like conditions
such as diabetes, many mental disorders are chronic (life-long), and a reasonable goal is improved
management, not a cure.
Point out positive qualities. Everyone has things he/she does well. Having a mental disorder often
undermines the person’s confidence, and they may focus their attention on the things they cannot do.
Notice small changes, rather than focusing on how far the person has to go, or how much they were
able to do in the past. Do compliment efforts to use new skills and coping strategies, or to try new
medications despite side-effects.
Expect setbacks. Managing a chronic illness is hard work, and sometimes the course of the illness
is an up and down one. Remember - a lapse is not necessarily a relapse. Setbacks are often expected and
temporary, and even helpful at times as patients recognize the need to continue actively managing their
disorder. Don’t induce guilt when there is a setback. It is often hard for persons with a mental illness to
accept their limitations and adding guilt increases feelings of alienation from those who want to help.
Support the person’s decision to seek help and follow treatment recommendations, but give
responsibility for treatment to the patient. You cannot force someone to get treatment or stay in treatment.
You cannot control another person’s disorder and you cannot cure it.
Direct your anger at the disorder, not the person with the disorder. The person who has the disorder
hates it more than you do. Don’t blame the person for having a disorder. He or she did not choose to have
a mental disorder. Try to think of the person as having a disorder, not being a disorder.
Don’t criticize. Those who have a mental disorder are often extremely critical of themselves. Negative
comments contribute to further lowering of self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness.
Be informed. Read as much as you can about your loved one’s disorder, but do not try to be your family
member or friend’s therapist or psychiatrist.
Identify family patterns that may contribute to problems. Try to notice and improve interactions
between you that trigger arguments or conflict. Seek family therapy or couple counseling if there has been
a long history of communication problems.
Take care of yourself. If a member of the family has had a mental disorder for many years, family life
has often been disrupted and family members may have given up activities they formerly enjoyed. Family
members and friends are entitled to time for themselves to pursue enjoyable activities.
Look for support. There are often support groups available for family and concerned friends. If you are
not aware of resources in your area, contact local hospitals, mental health centers, or national
organizations such as the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Numerous resources are now available on
– Nancee Blum