I’m caring for someone with a mental illness

Mental illnesses are medical conditions caused by changes in brain chemistry or function that affect a person’s thinking, feeling, mood and behaviour. Conditions and severity of symptoms include:

  • Social withdrawal or social anxiety
  • Anxiety and panic attacks – sudden episodes of intense fear or discomfort
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-harm
  • Extreme mood swings – from feeling really high to feeling really low, which  in some cases may be diagnosed as bipolar disorder
  • Psychosis – delusions, paranoia, hearing voices, and disordered thinking and speech
  • Suicidal thoughts – if you or someone you care about is in crisis and needs immediate assistance, call 911 

Here are some ways to help you cope and also provide support for your family member.

Managing your emotions

Caring for someone with a mental illness can be an emotional roller coaster. At times you may feel angry, sad or overwhelmed. If you are struggling with these or other emotions, here are some things you can do.

  • Take a time out – even 30 minutes away from people and stresses, can help you rebalance
  • Give yourself a break – instead of thinking things like, “I should be doing more”, give yourself credit for everything you are doing. Try to think of one or two things each day that you accomplished or that made you feel good
  • If the person lashes out at you – remember it’s the illness talking
  • Be patient – know that their symptoms may vary and some days will be better than others
  • Be accepting – you may have to adjust your expectations of your family member
  • Talk to a counsellor or mental health professional about how you’re feeling
  • Look into support for yourself and for your whole family, which could include attending an education session, meeting with a therapist, joining a support group or connecting with a peer family support

Tips for encouraging your family member to seek help

People experiencing mental health challenges are not always willing to seek treatment. They may not believe there is a problem or they may feel that they can address the issue on their own. The person may also have concerns about the stigma of a mental health diagnosis.

  • Arm yourself with information – mental health counsellors can answer any questions you may have and may also be able to provide support for you along the way
  • Let your family member know you are concerned
  • Try to use “I” statements rather than “you” statements to express your concerns. This will help remove criticism and judgement from the conversion, which could make the person defensive
  • For example, you could say “I think it would be helpful for you to talk to someone”, vs. “You need to get help”
  • Offer to make an appointment for them and go with them to the appointment

Tips for coping with specific behaviours

Symptoms and behaviours vary widely depending on a person’s illness. A mental health counsellor can provide you with information that is specific to your family member.

Here are a few tips for dealing with delusions or disordered thinking:

  • Help your care recipient tell the difference between reality and fantasy – say when you think something is not real, while acknowledging that it may seem real to them
  • Let them know it’s their brain chemistry that makes them think they’re seeing something
  • Try to distract them – involve them in a conversation or activity

Here are a few tips for helping to manage aggressive behaviour:

  • Give a firm, but calm, command such as “Please stop”
  • Give the person some space; if possible, remove yourself from the situation
  • Discuss aggressive behaviour or threats openly with your family and with a counsellor
  • Try to determine what triggers certain behaviours and reactions

Get help:

  • If you think your family member may harm themselves or someone else, call 911 and advise them that it is a mental health emergency
  • Make a crisis response plan – this should include information for the nearest hospital, a treatment provider, child care provider (if relevant), family members you can call
  • Reach out to Connex Ontariofor free health services information for people experiencing problems with mental illness, alcohol or drugs at connexontario.ca or call1-866-531-2600
  • Call 211 or visit www.211.ca for free and confidential information about Canadian health and community services available in your area
  • Share your experiences and concerns with other caregivers in our online support group
  • See also caring for someone with addictions

Not sure where to start? Call our 24/7 helpline or talk to us in our live chat to find resources in your community.








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