How To Support Someone With a Mental Health Condition
If you think someone you know is having difficulties with their mental health, it can be very unsettling. Not only is it difficult to watch a friend or relative experiencing mental health issues, you may also be confused about what you can do to help.
According to the NHS, one in four people has mental health problems every year (i). This means most of us are likely to have someone close to us who has struggled with their mental wellbeing.
If you’ve experienced mental wellbeing problems yourself, you’ll probably already appreciate how invaluable it is when someone you trust helps you through a difficult time. The good news is there are lots of things you can do to support someone with a mental health condition – and you don’t have to be a health expert to make a difference.
There are lots of ways in which someone’s mental health can be affected. Here are a few you may have heard of:
It’s normal to feel low from time to time, but when your low mood lasts for a couple of weeks or more or starts to affect your everyday life, it could be that you’re experiencing depression. Some specific types of depression include seasonal affective disorder – where you have symptoms at a particular time of year – and postnatal depression, which is usually diagnosed in women weeks or months after having a baby.
There’s no medical definition of stress. However, it can happen when we are under a lot of pressure and are finding it hard to cope, and when things happen that we don’t have much control over. Some stress is normal, but when you’re overwhelmed by stress it can lead to problems such as depression and anxiety, or it can make existing mental health issues worse.
Most people worry about things from time to time and this level of anxiety is normal. However, when you worry so much and so often that it has an impact on your day-to-day life, or if your anxiety is hard to control, you may have an such as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). This can also cause physical symptoms such as dizziness and heart palpitations and may also lead to sleep difficulties.
Losing someone you love can cause grief and a range of other emotions that can feel devastating. All of us experience bereavement differently, and the emotional fallout can last for varying amounts of time, depending on the individual and the relationship they had with the person who died. You can, however, also experience grief in reaction to other things, such as when a relationship ends or when you lose your job.
If you have a phobia, you experience an extreme type of fear or anxiety when faced with a specific situation or thing. It’s normal to fear things and situations that are dangerous, but phobias are when your fear is out of proportion to the danger or when it has a significant effect on the way you live. Common phobias include a fear of confined spaces (claustrophobia), fear of flying (aerophobia) and fear of spiders (arachnophobia) or snakes (ophidiophobia).
These are not quite the same as eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder. They are any kind of problem where you have a difficult relationship with food that affects the way you eat and how you think about food. However, eating problems don’t have to be just about food, as focusing on food can be a way of distracting yourself from other things that you’re finding hard to express or face.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
As its name suggests, this incorporates two things – obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are things that you think about frequently that make you feel very anxious, while compulsions are the actions you take to try and reduce the anxiety your obsessions are causing. Compulsions can include doing a specific thing repeatedly (washing your hands, for instance) or saying something to yourself over and over again. While they may often be no worse than a minor irritation, obsessions and compulsions can take over your life, making normal living very difficult.
If you experience anxiety, you may also know what it’s like to have a panic attack. A panic attack is an over-heightened response to fear, stress or even excitement, and can build up very quickly. They can be very frightening, especially if you don’t know what’s happening to you, with physical symptoms often including a racing heartbeat, chest pain, sweating and dizziness.
Spotting the signs
There’s no simple way of knowing if someone has a mental health problem. It may also not be easy to recognise the difference between behaviours that are normal for someone else and the signs of a mental wellbeing issue.
Each different mental health condition has its own particular set of symptoms. But here are some common signs you could look out for that suggest someone may be struggling with their mental health:
They worry excessively
They feel very sad or low all or most of the time
They avoid seeing their friends and skip social activities
They have frequent problems with focus, learning and concentration
They have extreme mood swings
They complain frequently that they are tired or have no energy, or they get tired easily
Their eating patterns change – they may eat more or less for example
They start drinking a lot of alcohol or using recreational drugs
They always seem angry or irritable
They have frequent minor health problems such as headaches and other aches and pains for no obvious reason
They lose their ability to deal with problems and stress
They seem distracted or more distant than usual
They look as if they’re neglecting their appearance
How you can help
The first thing you could do if you’re worried about someone is to get them talking about what’s troubling them and what they’re feeling. Talking about someone’s mental health can be tricky, and you may find they don’t want to open up about it at all. But here are some tips to help you approach the subject and help them feel they aren’t under any pressure.
How to approach the subject
Most of us don’t know where to start when it comes to talking to someone else about a mental health problem that may be affecting them. But there are a few things you could do to help that first conversation go smoothly:
Try to find a way to get the conversation started. One idea is to talk about celebrities who have talked publicly about mental health issues. For example, Prince Harry has talked about having panic attacks, Stephen Fry has spoken about his battle with depression and bipolar disorder, and singer Adele admitted she experienced post-natal depression after giving birth to her son.
Instead of sitting down and having a formal conversation - try talking while you’re doing something else such as driving or shopping. This can help make the person you’re talking to feel more relaxed and take the pressure off them.
If you find the person you’re talking to doesn’t want to open up don’t press them. At least by approaching the subject they’ll know that you’re there for them - and it could make them more likely to ask for help when they’re ready.
Avoid asking too many questions
When you first start talking to someone about their mental health it’s a good idea to keep your language as neutral as possible. Instead of asking direct questions, such as ‘How are you feeling?’, try statements such as ‘I can see you’re feeling low’. This allows the other person to say what they want to say, rather than answer a direct question. One question you could ask, however, is what could you do to help (including practical things such as helping them with their shopping or cleaning).
Also give them plenty of time to answer and when they do try to listen really carefully and not interrupt them. Try repeating what they’ve said back to them as this shows them that you’ve understood what they’ve said. Even if you don’t agree with what they’re saying try to show that you understand and respect their feelings.
Talk about regular things too
If someone is experiencing a mental health problem it’s unlikely that they’ll want to be defined by it. So try talking about all those other things you usually talk about as well as mental health issues. According to the NHS, behaving differently can make someone feel more isolated (i), so as well as talking about regular things, try to do what you normally do together as well and encourage them to take part in their usual activities. Keeping things as normal as possible for them could be more helpful that you realise.
Find useful information
Finding trustworthy information for someone who is having mental wellbeing difficulties may help them make informed choices and decisions when they’re ready to seek professional help. Reliable sources include NHS UK, the Mental Health Foundation, Time To Change, Rethink Mental Illness and Mind, or take a look at Mind’s useful contacts page.
You could also send them details of online forums set up for people with similar experiences, where they can chat with others who know what they’re going through. These include Elefriends, HealthTalk and the Mental Health Forum. The Mental Health Foundation also offers podcasts and videos they could watch or listen to that may give them essential information and help them feel they’re not alone.
Don’t forget to look after yourself
It can be very stressful to hear about how a mental health problem is affecting someone you care for. So try to make sure you look after your own wellbeing or you may find your own health starts to suffer.
If possible, try to get another person involved, so that you’re not trying to support the person having mental health difficulties on your own. If there isn’t anyone who can share the support you’re giving, find someone you can just talk to about your feelings. This can help you feel supported too.
Meanwhile, try and stay active and eat as healthily as possible, and make time for activities you enjoy or find relaxing.
Natural remedies for emotional wellbeing
While you’re supporting someone with a mental wellbeing problem, you may want to consider taking a nutritional supplement to support your own emotional and physical health. There are several products that could help you feel less stressed and more relaxed, including the following:
High-strength multivitamin and mineral
It’s important to carry on eating a healthy balanced diet when you’re supporting someone with a health problem. But if you’re skipping the odd meal or eating less healthily than usual, taking a good-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement could help make sure your body’s getting the essential nutrients it needs. One study even suggests people who take a multivitamin and mineral supplement cope with stressful situations more effectively (ii). Choose a multivitamin formulation that supplies good levels of zinc, which may be depleted when you’re under stress, and B vitamins to help support your nervous system.
The omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and pilchards are thought to have a positive effect on anxiety (iii), and have been acknowledged by the European Food Safety Authority as contributing to the maintenance of normal brain function (iv). If you don’t like eating oily fish, try taking a good-quality fish oily supplement, or a vegan omega-3 supplement if you don’t eat fish. These contain the natural triglyceride (TG) form of omega 3, which is sourced from algae rather than fish.
This is a traditional Ayurvedic herb that’s often used to relieve tiredness, fatigue and stress. One small-scale study suggests ashwagandha may reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol (v), while another has found 88 per cent of trial participants say they felt less anxious after taking it (vi).
Found almost exclusively in green, black, oolong and pekoe tea, theanine is a non-protein amino acid that may help your brain produce calming alpha waves. Studies suggest taking a theanine supplement may help you feel more relaxed without making you drowsy (vii).
This herb has a history of traditional use for the temporary relief of sleep problems and mild anxiety, so it may be useful if you’re not sleeping as well as you should. Studies have confirmed it helps improve sleep quality (viii).
St John’s wort
St John’s wort is a popular herbal remedy used for the relief of slightly low mood and mild anxiety, based on traditional use only. Researchers have found it may be more effective than a placebo at treating mild to moderate depression (ix), or at least as effective as some popular prescription antidepressants (x).
However, if you’re taking any other medicines take care, as St John’s wort may interact with some other medicines (consult your GP before taking it).
Used traditionally throughout Europe, rhodiola is a herb that is often used for stress relief. There is some evidence it may help reduce anxiety and stress more effectively than a placebo (xi), while researchers have found it could improve mental alertness in people with sleep difficulties (xii).
5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is an amino acid that’s often used as a remedy for depression and low mood, with studies suggesting it may be as effective as antidepressants (xiii). There’s also evidence to suggest 5-HTP may help with anxiety disorders (xiv).
Lavender aromatherapy oil
Lavender essential oil has a long tradition of helping you feel more relaxed and sleep better. One study also suggests lavender oil may be an effective natural way to treat the signs of anxiety (xv). Try placing some in an essential oil diffuser if you’re feeling stressed, or have a warm bath with a drop or two of lavender oil before bedtime to help you sleep more peacefully.
Supporting someone who’s experiencing difficulties with their mental health can be a challenge but ultimately it can also be very rewarding. But it’s also important to take care of your own physical and emotional health at the same time. This guide should give you some useful pointers.
For more information on many other emotional and physical health conditions, visit our dedicated health library.
Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters/helping-others
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Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.