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Helping a loved-one with a mental health problem can be one of life's biggest challenges. How do you avoid making mistakes?

Supporting a loved-one with a mental health issue can be a huge challenge. You want to make a positive difference in the life of your friend or relative, but often have no idea how to act. Today, we'll be discussing how to help a loved-one with a mental health problem in the most general terms. Mental health challenges come in numerous forms, after all — but there are some similarities too: everyone with a mental health problem needs love and support, and everyone playing such a supportive role feels lost sometimes. 

Think Before You Act

Your loved-one might already have been diagnosed with a mental health issue, or their behavior may have led you to suspect mental illness. In either case, it can be extremely tempting to tell them exactly what you think they should do, think, or believe. "You need some help, man", you may desperately want to say if your loved-one isn't currently seeing any mental health professionals. If they are, you may still want to tell them to get over their depression, or to stop drinking, or that their neighbors aren't really in on some big conspiracy against them. 

Don't do it. Blurting out whatever comes to mind is a bad idea that could cost you your relationship with your loved-one, at the very time they need you most. So think before you act.

The most constructive thing you can do is to inform yourself about your loved-one's diagnosis thoroughly, if they already have a diagnosis they have shared with you. The internet is a great tool that will tell you all about the symptoms and treatment of any mental health issue or personality disorder. By frequenting forums designed for people with the relevant diagnosis, you can additionally gain valuable insights into life with that diagnosis from the patient's point of view. 

Does your loved-one not have a diagnosis, because they don't think there is anything wrong with them perhaps? You may believe the absolute priority is getting them to see a psychologist or psychiatrist. While they are indeed likely to benefit from this, the mere suggestion that they see a professional could put an abrupt end to your relationship.

What are you going to do instead? The answer is probably that you'll browse the internet in an effort to "diagnose" your loved-one yourself. While this might be helpful in informing you how to handle the situation, it can also backfire. Keep in mind that identical or very similar symptoms could have quite a few different causes, and that you might not have the background information — not to mention education — to draw the right conclusion. Thinking your loved-one has bipolar disorder when they really have PTSD isn't helpful, to name an example. 

Listen, Listen, Listen (And Don't Lecture)

No matter what mental health issue your loved-one is facing, they will want to feel supported, listened to, and loved — pretty much like the rest of us, really! People struggling with mental illness may feel their world is falling apart. Having at least one constant can be life-saving, in some cases literally. A non-judgmental, caring friend or relative can be that one constant. By being there for your loved-one and really listening to their problems, you are providing something truly valuable. 

Really listening means you have to stay away from judgment and ill-informed comments. Here are some general tips to help with that:

  • If mental illness seems to have taken your loved-one's personality over, remember that they are more than their mental illness. Think of the good times when things get tough for you.
  • Never make comments that minimize how your loved-one is feeling. 
  • In case of delusions, never acknowledge that the delusion is real but don't say you don't believe it either — that carries a huge risk they will not trust you any longer.
  • Don't try to change your loved-one's mind in general (suicide would be one exception!). Instead, be a sounding board and make it clear that you care. 

In some cases, you may be able to suggest counseling or treatment. This depends on your loved-one's general attitude towards their own issues and mental health support in general. This is something you're going to have to go with your gut on. Unfortunately, suggesting treatment when your loved-one doesn't see they have a problem can be terribly counterproductive. Proceed with caution.

You may not be able to "fix your loved-one's life", but you are able to provide support and love. Don't underestimate the positive impact of those things, while also remembering you are not a mental health professional.
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