Supporting someone with a mental health condition

We have some helpful information for all support people and family members, no matter how long you’ve been supporting a person who’s experiencing a mental health condition. 

Some people may not know whether the person they’re supporting has been clinically diagnosed with a mental health condition. Others will have recognised that something isn’t right and will be taking the first steps to getting a medical opinion. There are people that may have been supporting a friend or loved one for some time and working towards recovery.

Some support people will also be looking after someone who has a mental health condition and co-existing physical health problem, disability or chronic illness (e.g. a heart condition, Parkinson’s disease or a cancer diagnosis).

Who do the terms 'support person' or 'supporter' describe?

The terms 'support person' or ‘supporter’ refer to a person who is taking care of someone with a mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression.

  • A support person could be a husband, wife, child, sibling, partner, flatmate, parent or close friend. 

Supporters provide ongoing support which may be in a social, emotional, physical and/or financial capacity. Sometimes, this may conflict with their own employment, relationships, social life, physical and/or mental health.

Recognising something is not right

For many years, mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression were not discussed openly in the community because of stigma associated with the condition. If someone breaks their arm, the process is simple – get an x-ray, receive treatment and begin recovery. Unlike physical injuries such as broken bones,  symptoms of anxiety may be deliberately covered up or unintentionally hidden.

Signs and symptoms of anxiety may remain unrecognised or attributed to being associated with certain life stages, stressful events, hormones or personality traits.

It’s common for people not to discuss mental health conditions with family members or friends. There is even more stigma around mental health in cultures where health issues of any type are not discussed with members of the immediate or extended family and certainly not with friends.

Negative views or stigma about mental health are often due to misunderstandings, cultural beliefs, misconceptions and/or lack of knowledge about mental health conditions and the associated signs and symptoms.

Taking the first step to helping someone with anxiety and/or depression

It’s important to remember, when you take the first step in dealing with anxiety or depression, you are not alone – support is available for you, too.

Have the conversation

A conversation can make a difference in helping someone feel less alone and more supported in recovering from anxiety and depression. Don’t underestimate the importance of just ‘being there’.

Raising the subject with the person you care about may take some planning and thought.

Consider the following:

  • When is the person most likely to be attentive?
  • Where is he or she most comfortable and at ease?
  • Where is there a place you both feel safe and will not be interrupted?

For more information on having the conversation with someone you are concerned about, see our page on Talking to someone you are worried about

Acknowledging the impact of anxiety and/or depression

Often mental health conditions lead to people becoming very introspective, making it hard for them to be aware of the impact their behaviour is having on other people. If the person is unwilling to talk about things, you could let them know how their behaviour is affecting other family members or friends. This may be a way to encourage the person to try to do something about the situation.

Encouraging the person to seek support is another key step. Suggest that you seek support together. For example, you could make an appointment for you both to see the person’s GP for a check-up. The person may not see this as a threatening or intrusive option.

Unfortunately, sometimes the person may be reluctant or may even refuse to get help. People may give a range of reasons as to why:

  • “I’m not ready.”
  • “I’m just going through a phase.”
  • “It may just be stress.”

It’s common for people with anxiety and/or depression to not recognise they need support, so you may find it difficult. Again, it may be useful to consider highlighting the broader impact the person’s behaviour is having on others. You could also talk about the positive effects of getting support. If the person won’t listen to you, think about asking someone else to talk to them.

A trusted friend or family member may be able to get through to the person and raise some issues without posing a threat or creating apprehension. In
more extreme circumstances, where you are very concerned, you may consider contacting your GP to see if they can become involved or make a home visit.

Your ultimate goal is to support the person, so try to keep this in mind even when they may be cross or agitated with you.

Does a person with anxiety and/or depression go through various stages?

Mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression may not always run a particular course where there is a clear beginning, middle and end. This however, can occur with some physical health problems – a diagnosis, treatment such as surgery or medication and then recovery.

Following diagnosis, recovery from anxiety and depression can involve progressing through various stages. It may include trialling different medications, treatments or health professionals. This is all part of learning what works for the person and what doesn’t. This can take time, persistence and patience.

Supporting someone to see a health professional

It may be that the conversation about seeking some professional support wasn’t easy and actually going to see a health professional may not be easy either… but you’ve taken the first step and it’s important to keep up the momentum.

The importance of support networks

Ongoing support will play a major role in the person’s recovery and this support may come from many sources, including friends and family members, health professionals and perhaps support groups.

“It’s a really lonely life when you’re dealing with this on your own.”

It’s important to ensure that people with anxiety and other mental health conditions develop skills to support themselves and do not become totally dependent on the person supporting them.

Find out more information on anxiety support groups in your local area or state by heading to:

Emergency and crisis situations

Sometimes, when a person has severe mental health issues or the person’s condition deteriorates rapidly, they may consider attempting suicide or harming themselves.

For some people, their condition may become so severe that they may feel these actions are their only option.

It’s always better to be prepared. Talk to the person about the issue of suicide when they aren't highly distressed and help them to develop a safety plan that can be used to cope should they be triggered and start heading into a suicidal crisis.

Sometimes we need to undertake some training/education to feel more competent in supporting a suicidal friend or family member. Training like the LivingWorks ASIST program can help increase your knowledge and skills.

Urgent assistance

If the situation is urgent and you’re concerned that the person is in immediate danger, do not leave the person alone, unless you are concerned for your own safety.

Call the person’s doctor, a mental health crisis service or dial 000 and say that the person’s life is at risk. If the person agrees, you could go together to the local hospital emergency department for assessment.

It is important to keep these emergency numbers handy.

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