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Helping a Family Member with a Mental Disorder

If one of your family members has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness such as such as bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression), Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia, then you and your family are no doubt experiencing a number of concerns, emotions and questions about the disorder.

Family members are inevitably affected, and it is often very hard to know how to handle the situation. You may feel helpless, overwhelmed, hopeless, angry, frustrated or resentful. Feelings of guilt, shame and isolation and sadness are also common and normal, but bear in mind that mental disorders affect millions of people.

Remember your loved one’s illness is no-one’s fault. Also, understand that you can’t make your loved one well, but you can offer support, understanding and hope.

Research the Condition

Firstly, each person experiences their condition differently, so the best way to find out what your loved one needs from you is by asking direct questions.

You would also do well to read and learn all you can about the mental disorder in question – its symptoms and treatments. Read brochures, books and other dependable sources. Beware of unsolicited advice and unreliable websites!

Help with Getting Treatment

These conditions are real, treatable illnesses that affect the brain, so encourage your family member to get professional help. Many people with these conditions can find treatments that work. The first step is to see a primary care physicians or family doctor, then obtain a referral to a mental health care specialist. If possible, work together to compile a list of questions to take to appointments, and go along with them. Help them to keep records of symptoms, treatment, progress and setbacks, and support their prescribed treatment plan.

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But realize that you cannot make the person get treatment. However, if you believe they are in danger of committing suicide or harming someone else, you should immediately get outside help.

Offer Practical Help

Look into the financial aid that your loved one may qualify for and, if necessary, help them to find suitable housing, make use of vocational rehabilitation, medication assistance and any community services that may be available.

Provide Emotional Support

Offer your unconditional love and support, together with reassurance and hope for the future. This may be difficult at times, as the disorder will affect their attitude and beliefs, leading to confused or negative thinking. With professional help, your family member may realize that this kind of thinking is a symptom of the illness.

People with depression may need help with everyday tasks and sticking to a daily routine. Try to be there even if they do not want to talk, and keep offering kind words.

On the other hand, someone experiencing a manic episode is likely to be highly active. At this time, you may need to ask other family members, friends or mental health professionals to intervene. If your loved one becomes dangerous, get help nearby or call 911 or your local police department.

Take Care of Yourself

This is essential for you to be able to support your loved one. Build a network of support including your most understanding friends and relatives, and consider joining a support group or undergoing therapy of your own.

Try to stay realistic – your loved one may well recover, but it will probably happen slowly. Nurture a positive, hopeful attitude by taking time out for yourself and staying aware of your own needs. Make sure you are able to relax and spend some time on the things you enjoy.
Don’t underestimate or play down your problems – remember you need plenty of help and comfort to support the person you care about.

If Hospitalization is Needed…

When symptoms of the disorder become severe, it may be necessary for the person to be hospitalized, to help them return to stability. Ideally, research your local hospitals beforehand. Investigate their inpatient and outpatient services, and whether the person’s insurance or Medicare/Medicaid covers hospitalisation. If not, find out about community or state-run facilities. Preferred hospitals, medications and treatment methods could be discussed in advance.
When your loved one is in hospital, be assertive and make sure they receive the best treatment.

Helping Children with Mental Disorders

If your child is suffering from a mental disorder, they will require a great deal of patience and understanding. It is essential to find a doctor you can rely on, and explain to your child that you are working together to help him or her feel better. Family counseling may be useful, as would meeting up with other families affected by the disorder.

Learning positive coping strategies and relaxation techniques may help your child. This may include self-expression through art, music, writing or play. A stable routine and structure at home will provide a secure base for your child, and do try not to blame yourself.

Helping Elderly Relatives with Mental Disorders

Helping an older family member with a mental disorder may be difficult if they are living separately from you, but you can still provide vital support both emotionally and practically. Stay in regular contact with their doctor so you are fully aware of treatment, especially if different doctors are treating him or her for different illnesses (some medications may interact). Try to arrange a system with other relatives so that you all share responsibility and your elderly relative is visited often.

Finally, don’t give up hope because treatment for mental disorders can be effective, and many patients can live a normal life. Keep working with your loved one and their doctors to find treatments that work, and keep reminding your loved one that you are there for them.

Additional Resources

Helping a Family Member with a Mental Disorder

Jane Collingwood

Jane Collingwood is a longtime regular contributing journalist to Psych Central, focusing on topics of mental health and dissecting recent research findings.

APA Reference
Collingwood, J. (2020). Helping a Family Member with a Mental Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.