How Families and Friends can help

This factsheet provides practical tips and suggestions for you to consider when supporting someone with mental health or addiction issues. Remember no “one size fits all” and how you support someone will depend on you and the person you are supporting.

  • There are a number of different mental illnesses and they affect different people in different ways.
  • Some people experience periodic recurrence of illness, others have only one experience while yet others experience enduring symptoms.
  • It is believed that mental illness is triggered by a range or combination of factors. These include physical, social, psychological, socioeconomic and environmental influences which can result in a major change in a person’s behaviour, emotions and thinking.
  • Effective  treatment involved a variety of approaches including education, counselling, medication and social support. Well being can be enhanced when family / whānau and friends are educated and involved in the recovery process.
  • Mental illness can be treated and the best health outcome occurs when treatment takes place in the early stages of the illness.
  • Mental illnesses include: Mood disorders e.g depression and bipolar; psychotic disorders e.g schizophrenia and psychosis; eating disorders e.g anorexia nervosa and bulima and anxiety disorders e.g PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder).
  • Often these illnesses are caused by or complicated by drug or alcohol abuse.

How can mental illness affect family/whānau and friends?

When a person experiences a mental illness, families and friends:

  • Often face a range of emotions such as anxiety, anger, worry, confusion and fear.
  • May be unsure how to act, or who to turn to for help.
  • Might experience social isolation through being reluctant to discuss what is happening in their usual circles.
  • Sometimes grieve and feel anxious and uncertain about the future and what it will mean for their loved one’s education, employment and quality of life:
  • May be concerned about what it will mean for themselves and other family / whānau members;
  • Often ask why; it is common for them to blame themselves, or to blame one another when a loved one is affected by mental illness.

How can family/whānau & friends help?

If you are worried that a family member or friend is in the early stages of a mental illness, or you feel that something is not quite right, there are warning signs you should  be aware of: increased feelings of anxiety, panic and fear; changes to usual energy level; changes in mood ( Highs and lows); disrupted or changed sleep patterns; deterioration of school work or work performance; becoming with drawn from friends, family and colleagues.

Mental illness can be hard to diagnose in the early stages because other things can cause similar changes. Discuss your concerns with your GP or other health professional and request a general check up.

Information, education, support and advocacy

Family / whānau who are well informed and supported are better able to support their unwell family member. Local mental health services have information available on mental illness and treatment options including medication.

Family / whānau inclusion and participation in the treatment and recovery process supports a better outcome for the person experiencing unwellness. This involvement can help reduce future relapses or hospitalisation.

Practical suggestions to help

Symptoms such as mood swings, confused thinking, hallucinations, delusions, or panic and anxiety can be threatening and perplexing to your family member with mental illness and those around them.

A person who experiences some of these symptoms may become seriously depressed, withdrawn and possibly even suicidal. Occasionally a person might display uncharacteristic levels of anger and violence.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Reduce the level of stress. While stress does not cause disorders such as psychosis and bipolar disorder, it could make the symptoms worse.
  • Try to maintain calm at home.
  • Take time out if you need. Even small breaks can be helpful to everyone.
  • Speak quietly and clearly. Sometimes an illness makes a person excessively sensitive to noise levels, or unable to sort out complicated discussions.
  • Aim to develop a good relationship with your family member’s mental health team.
  • Seek support for yourself. Maintain your social contacts as best you can.
  • Take good care of yourself. Eat well, get sufficient sleep, take some exercise and be aware of your own stress levels. Access your local Supporting Families branch to support you in your caring role.

If there is an immediate danger to self or others contact 111 for Police assistance or your local emergency mental health service.