What to say when a loved one is suffering with a mental illness
By Eleanor Johnson & the 1in4 followers

There’s one thing that anyone suffering from a mental illness needs, and that is love and support. It’s not always easy to love people when they don’t love themselves, but despite often feeling the contrary, there is almost always someone who wants to be there for us.

We’ve all seen lists of things not to say to someone battling with a mental illness and sometimes you might feel scared, confused and unsure of what you can say and do to help. Maybe you feel hopeless and powerless, but there are actually so many tiny things that can mean the absolute world to someone suffering. It is often the small things that can make such a monumental positive impact, just as it’s often the small negative things that can feel like enormous weights when someone is struggling.

‘What do you need?’

So we asked the 1in4 community to let us know what they would like someone to say to them. What’s important to remember is that every person is different, deals with things differently and needs different things at different times. A common theme expressed was wanting others to ask, “What do you need?” and for them then to listen and accept the response. It may not be something you feel you can help with, and that is OK, but unless you get the chance to ask, you will never know what it is that might help.

More often than not it might be something so simple and straightforward that it may feel like you’re doing nothing. Honestly, it most probably means everything to that person you care for!

Some ideas

Below is some of the feedback we received. There were nine themes that were expressed over and over, and I hope they will provide you with some insight and ideas about how you could be there for your own loved one.

1. Being with us

Mental illness can feel very isolating and lonely. Our minds can often tell us no one cares or that we are worthless. Your presence is so valued. Sometimes no words are even needed, just be there physically.

Some things the community said they would love to hear:
“I’m by your side through this all.” “I’m here for you.”
“Shall we do it together?” “You’re not alone.”
“I can see you’re struggling. It’s OK, I’m here for as long as it takes.”
“I’ve got you.” “I’ll be here whenever you need me.”
“I am here, I WANT to be here, I love you and it’s OK to not be OK right now, and I will ride it out with you till you are OK again, no matter how long it takes.”

2. “You’re not at fault”

It’s often easy to listen to the voices in our head telling us everything is our fault. It’s our fault XYZ happened, it’s even our fault it rained today. We can feel that we must have done something to deserve the way we feel or maybe that we aren’t doing enough to feel better. Mental illness does not discriminate. No one would choose the agony it can bring. Maybe something happened to us that is unthinkable. There must be a reason for it. We must have done something wrong. These feelings in turn can make us feel we don’t deserve support and we can be acutely aware of how difficult it can be for those around us.

Some things the community said they would love to hear:
“It’s not your fault.” “You don’t deserve this.”
“You are not a burden.” “You are worthy.”
“You’re not a bad person or a failure for feeling the way you do.”

3. Offers of help

There are many practical things that we may appreciate support with. Often basic daily tasks can feel like climbing Mount Everest. Are we eating right or managing to get to our appointments? Have we been able to access support services?

Some things the community said they would love to hear:
“How can I best help right now?” “What do you need that I can provide?”
“Shall I make tea and toast?” “Can I come to an appointment with you?”
“I’m going to be there for you and help you find the help you need.”
“I’ve got stuff for right now. All you need to do is focus on staying safe and as well as you can be right now.”
“Can I do your ironing, and possibly clean out your oven?”
“Can I make you a casserole?”
“I’m going to make you a brew. I’ve put a sandwich and some stuff in the fridge.”

4. Acceptance and acknowledgment

It can be incredibly difficult, even impossible to explain how or why we feel the way we do. Often we don’t understand it at all ourselves. There’s no easier way to silence someone sharing their pain than to belittle, disbelieve, undermine or play down their experiences. You may not understand what we are going through: you’re not expected to, we wouldn’t want you to. You might feel you would react or behave very differently from us, that is OK too, but please accept and acknowledge our experience and feelings about it. One follower shared her story of how her son does just this: “I’m psychotic and my young son says, ‘I know you can hear the voices, but I can’t so I don’t think they are real, Mum.’ He was nine when he first said this. It really helps me, as it validates my experience but also helps me stay in reality.”

Feelings are valid

Some things the community said they would love to hear:
“I believe you and your feelings are valid.”
“I can’t understand what you are going through but I’m here for you.”
“It’s OK that you don’t know what’s caused the fall this time; the fact you can admit you’re struggling is enough for now …”
“It’s OK not to be OK. Allow yourself to feel the negative emotions because without them you can’t appreciate the positive ones.”
“It’s OK not to be OK and not know why.”
“It’s OK to ask for help.”
“Every feeling is valid, and no feeling is permanent.”

5. Connection

So many people expressed they would just like a hug or a hand held. Physical connection can be so powerful. It shows we are cared for, not alone, and it can make us feel safer, loved, and can raise our mood. However some may prefer the opposite. One person commented, “I just like people to give me space, and to understand and remember my predicament.”

Some things the community said they would love to hear:
“Do you want a hug?” Fancy a chat?”
“I’ll hold your hand and sit in the darkness with you … just so you know it’s safe to fall.”

6. Listen

Giving time and space to listen to us was a desire expressed over and over again. The opportunity to express and share all the things going on in our heads can be a relief. We may need to talk about the same things on numerous occasions. Some of it may be hard, even painful to hear. You’re not being expected to fix or solve what is being shared,  just to hear and acknowledge it. Releasing our inner worries into words can help to ease how they may be constantly invading our thoughts and interrupting our lives.

Some things the community said they would love to hear:
“You stay there/come with me and tell me all about it.”
“You don’t need to explain how you feel if you don’t want to but I’ll listen if you do.”
“Breathe. It’s OK. Do you want to tell me about it?”
“Please share your worries with me so I can help you through them. You are not in this alone and I will fight with you to make this all better …”
“I’m here. I know talking isn’t always something you want to do, but I am here if you ever want to. If you don’t, I am still here to be with you.”

7. Treat me normally

Some people commented they would just like to be treated in the way you normally would treat them. Our mental illness is part of us, but the person you’ve always known is still there. It can sometimes feel as though we are purely our diagnoses. There may be times we need to focus on how we are; we need to talk and we need support, but we also need normality and a reminder of the things we enjoy. Sometimes the last thing we want to do is focus on our illness. We want to hear about you too and discuss everyday topics. Being unwell doesn’t suddenly make us an alien, untrustworthy or a danger. Not including us in usual activities can increase our isolation and sense of worthlessness.

Some things the community said they would love to hear:
“You are still you and I trust you.”
“Hi! Fancy a cuppa/coffee/drink/shopping trip?”


8. Treats and distractions

The same things that can comfort us during a regular bad day can also help now and then during struggles with our mental health. Distractions can help keep our minds off our darker thoughts for a while. One follower commented, “Chat the shit out of me. Give me something practical I can fix. Keep me present and connected and useful.”

Some things the community said they would love to hear:
“Spend the day shopping/in bed.”
“Let’s make popcorn and watch Harry Potter!”
“Here’s a blanket, a phone charger and movies. When you are ready to move again I’ll still be here for you.”
“I’ve brought, pizza, beer and ice cream and I came to sit in the mud with you and wait it out because I love you.”
“Want to watch comedies and act silly? I’m here. Want to wear pjs all day and watch bad TV? I’m here. Need me to drag you out? I’m here.”

9. Praise, encouragement and love

There’s no getting away from the fact that battling with our mental health can be draining and difficult. Getting out of bed in the morning or brushing our hair may take the same strength as running a marathon. Your praise and encouragement can help us keep fighting and also lets us know you appreciate the sheer effort we are putting into ourselves when we might feel useless and a failure.

One follower shared how her daughter helps her, “My three-year-old daughter came up to me one day and said to me, ‘Mummy, you are my life!’ and gave me a kiss and a cuddle. It’s things like this I want to hear or at least be reminded of when I think no one gives a monkeys anymore, but it shouldn’t be just my three-year-old, it should be friends and family of all ages.”

Some things the community said they would love to hear:
“You can beat this.”
“You’re beautiful just the way you are.”
“Keep going, you have worth and ability and you deserve to be happy. You’re not alone, even though it feels like that at times. You’ve got this.”
“Do not trust your brain, it tells you lies.”
“I care for you. I love you. You matter.”
“Place your palm on your chest … hear that ?? Yes you’re still alive, no matter how dead you feel, in spite of the unreasonable, strong, painful emotions you have, the meaningless tears at 2 am, the empty thoughts filled with overthinking, heavy breathing, grieving in silence at night for no reason. Remember the sun shines brighter if you give it a chance.”

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