What to Do When a Family Member Gets a Mental Illness

May 3, 2013 Natasha Tracy

When someone gets a mental illness people feel hopeless but there are things you can do for a family member with a mental illness. More: Breaking Bipolar blog.

A get questions from all sorts of family members and friends of people with mental illnesses and, luckily, many of these people want to help. The trouble is people feel intimidated by a diagnosis of mental illness. They don’t even know where to start to help. This is completely normal. A probable lifetime diagnosis is enough to make anyone feel powerless.

But you are not powerless. If you love someone with a mental illness, there are many things you can do to help.

The Mental Illness Knowledge Barrier

The first thing to tackle is the knowledge barrier. It’s completely understandable that friends and family won’t know much about a mental illness when it is first diagnosed. People have heard the words “bipolar” or “schizophrenia” but really have no accurate knowledge as to what these things are. So it’s critical to learn.

It’s essential to, quite frankly, consume as much information as possible on the diagnosis. HealthyPlace is a great place to start this learning. I have written hundreds of articles here that can be immensely helpful when learning about a disorder.

This knowledge does a few things. It allows you to understand:

  • What the person with the mental illness is going through
  • The behavior that you may have seen that was motivated by the illness
  • The types of treatments available and what those treatments are like

In other words, education allows you to put yourself in the shoes of the person with the mental illness – at least a little.

Families and Mental Illness

We have a great blog here, Mental Illness in the Family, that I recommend you check out, but basically, family is complicated at the best of times and adding an illness into the mix isn’t about to make anything simpler. In short, what I can say is:

  • Be there for the person with the mental illness
  • Tell the person with the mental illness that you care about them and love them and no disease will ever change that
  • Try to support the person with the mental illness in ways that they request
  • Try to keep other family drama out of the equation – if you can

Talk to the Family Member with the Mental Illness

And possibly the number one thing you can do to help a family member with a mental illness is to talk to them. Open up a dialog. Start a conversation that makes it clear that the person with the mental illness is not “crazy” and you feel the same way about them as you did before the diagnosis. And then ask the person with the mental illness what they need. I can tell you list of things that I think any person with a mental illness would need, but the person who is the expert in his or her own mental illness is the patient herself.

You might try offering to do things like:

  • Make appointments for the person with the mental illness. Go with them to these appointments.
  • Keep track of medical records
  • Offer to do the person’s laundry, clean, take out the garbage or do other household chores that may seem overwhelming
  • Offer childcare
  • Offer to make a meal for the person sometimes
  • Check in with the person with the mental illness frequently, if for no other reason, then just to ensure the person maintains outside contact

And like I said, just be there, unconditionally. Most of us with a mental illness have had people walk away from us due to that mental illness, and likely, that will be your family member’s bigger fear. If you can alleviate that fear, even a little, you’re doing an amazing job.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2013, May 3). What to Do When a Family Member Gets a Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 16 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

November, 4 2016 at 2:47 pm


May, 9 2016 at 12:21 am

My daughter has all the symptoms of bipolar. She never speaks to me unless I start the conversation then she walks away with a nasty fleeting remark. All this is driving me mad. My husband and I came over here in Oz because she wanted us to and we liked the thought of being with my daughter her husband and three daughters. Since being over here her husband told me he suffered before we came over. He now spends most of his time when not at work buying anything she wants. for her as he is frightened of her shouting screaming and violence, I am 69 my husband 70. We do not want this at our age.We cannot go home as we sold our house car everything before and since being here. I must say although she has spats with her dad she always seem to ask for something to be done. Then they are ok again but with me she makes me suffer in so many ways. She would never listen to what other people suggest because she is always right. She also lies all the time to us. She has a job looking after babies and small children. She got the job after her eldest daughter filled in all the questions with the help her dad and other friends. My daughter hates the job and says only in it for money. She has told me she loves money. Her daughters have also suffered and had fights with her rolling around the floor. Who canlp us as she really is not my lovely daughter any more just a spoilt woman who gets Everthing she wants. She is also bringing up her youngest daughter to be spoilt and gives her everthing but beats her with a wooden spoon when she gets on her nerves. What the hell can I do my husband and I cannot go home to England as we spent all our money paying them for a deposit for half of the house.

lynda maxim
August, 30 2014 at 8:51 am

Thank you for the articles.
They are so helpful.
I was hoapitalized in 1967 with what the Doctor's said was close to Equine Encephelitis, I was seven.
I only remember having my clothes and doll taken away from me by the nurses and being very alone.
Recently, I was told by my mther that I had extremely slow speech and had to relearn to speak after I was released from the hosp.
I have. I have been told I am very articulatte and I 'Present' well.
I have grown up feeling very trapped inside my mind, misunderstood by my family.
It takes a great deal of emotional energy and concentration to express myself verbally.
Socially I have never felt connected and have boundary issues. I always thought if I give what I need to others, they will recipricate. That has proved to be extremely painful and devastating. I started a family really young and had 3 bad marriages and 5 kids.
I feel very alone despite the large family.
My grown children are trying to live normal lives.
Two of my boys have serious Mental Illness as well, and they are very alone and isolated...
Only very awkward once a year contact... with their sibs.
They seem to have slowly drifted away from us as we must be too awkward to have in their lives.
The pain is so deep and sufficating.
Please educate yourselves about Mental Illness

November, 6 2013 at 5:52 am

Our oldest child is dealing with major depression and psychosis. Multiple self-harm acts and suicidal attempts. Sees both community mental health and psych Dr weekly. On meds, previous ect's,counselling... All family supportive,open and loving. Has moved back home due to safety and isolation concerns. Now suicidal thoughts are back and in crisis unit. Wanted to come home but I said no. Younger child in school, both parents working. All of us are exhausted. I know and understand that the nature of the illness , feeling worthless and " a bother", keeps them from seeing the love and support there for them. At this point and after these last 2 years I feel as I need to protect myself, my spouse and our younger child. It is so hard to fight for , love and support one who doesn't feel are worthy enough to fight for, love or support their own self. Covers emotions, refuses to open up with family friends,counsellor s. I will never stop loving or being there, but right now I need to step aside to live for myself and the rest of my family. How have others dealt with this?

May, 11 2013 at 2:31 am

I am with Helen on this one. It depends. It is a fact that people with BD are "not crazy", that is, they know what they are doing, they cannot claim to be criminally irresponsible. So if they are repeatedly aggressive, grandiose (unbearably arrogant, conceited and dominating, etc), why should we "support" them? I had a friend with BD. We still move in the same circles but nowadays I find her totally unbearable. There is no borderline between the person's character and illness. Until you have the courage ("insight") to own your behaviour and start to change it, why should those around you allow you to make their lives unbearable? I have read many, many posts on your blog. And it's noticeable that you, and commenters with BD always, always write about your SELVES. Not one of you appears to give a fig about those who have to cope ("support" ) you. I honestly can no longer see the difference between this and NPD.

Helen Quinn
May, 6 2013 at 10:34 am

I believe all depends on the degree of the mental illness. During my ten years of incomplete diagnosis, I did terrible things. Indeed, terrible. Spent my inheritance. Went to jail six times while stealing when psychotic. Ultimately, I did find a good psychiatrist, correct medication that led to a chance. The tips may have helped in the beginning. However, I thoroughly the anger and rejection by my family and by my friends. Thus, I believe ways to help are reliable only when cases are mild. Just a personal observation.

Thomas Smith
May, 4 2013 at 7:54 am

"Most of us with a mental illness have had people walk away from us due to that mental illness, and likely, that will be your family member’s bigger fear."
Absolutely correct. My husband and I were on a radio show recently talking up our book about Darrell's story of surviving DID (as we do) and that topic came up. I responded to the host that as a gay couple we'd already had this experience of "coming out" and so we viewed the process of bringing Darrell's story public was pretty much identical.
What most LGBT people learn is that your true friends will still be your friends after you tell them your truth and the rest don't matter. Things are much the same in the world of mental health and I say this as a Bipolar guy married to a DID patient.

Laura Muckefuse
May, 3 2013 at 7:54 pm

Great tips! I think the best thing we can do to start breaking down the barriers of mental illness, is to begin opening up dialogue about the issue. Because the topic has been so "taboo" for so many years, people have feared seeking treatment and being labeled with any sort of diagnosis. If we could talk about mental health as openly as we talk about other common medical conditions I believe people would be much more likely to seek treatment. The most important thing I feel people need to know is that having a mental illness is very common, nearly 1 in 3 persons suffers from some form of mental illness within their lifetime.

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