Helping A Loved One Who Has A Mental Illness

womencare-support-groups_istock_000010775681The other day, a friend of mine asked me how she could help a friend of hers that was mentally ill.

She explained to me that her friend had bipolar disorder, something she had been suffering from for years and had a long history of self-injury and suicide attempts.

According to my friend, this person was currently in a deep depression and posting dark posts on Facebook including some alarming ones such as wanting to give away her pets (giving away possessions is often associated with suicidal thoughts).

She wanted to know what should she do or say to her to make her “feel better” and I told her that there was no magic word or act she could to that would just bring her out of her current mental state. It’s like trying to help a friend who has a serious medical condition. You can help alleviate the pain, maybe make them feel more comfortable, but there is nothing you can actually do that will just cure the person of the condition.

Many people think they can or should be able to, and thus get very frustrated with themselves and/or the person they are trying to help when the reality hits that it’s just not that simple. The best thing you can do, and what I told my friend to do is to be a support system for her friend and show her love. Let her see that she has a friend who is going to stand by her side no matter what.

People suffering from a mental illness often feel broken, unlovable and fear that people will abandon them if they can’t keep it together. The best gift you can give them is showing support and love. There are no magic words or acts, but you may be surprised how a simple walk around the park talking about nothing in particular or just being present with that person, can have huge positive effects.

Many people who want to help someone they love who has a mental illness often don’t do that because as simple as it sounds, it can actually be quite difficult to actually sit with and be present with someone instead of lecturing, ordering and dictating to them what they should or need to be doing. That’s why actually just being with them, showing love and support can be such a precious gift.

Also, you may need your own support system to help yourself while helping someone you love and that’s okay.  There are many support groups tailored towards supporting loved ones of people with various illnesses including mental illnesses.

You may also need to make appropriate boundaries so that you don’t become overwhelmed and exhausted. Don’ try to be a superhero, you are only one person so do what you can when you can, but don’t feel obligated to do everything.

However you choose to support your loved one who has a mental illness is a blessing. They may not be able to tell you that or appreciate it right away. Your support doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be effective  You are doing what few people do, which is showing support and love instead of ignoring or stigmatizing.

Some Tips

  1. Learn about their illness. It’s easier to help and support someone with any illness when you have some information and insight about what they are going through. My friend who wants to support her friend with bipolar disorder actually had no working knowledge of the disorder.
  2. Let them know that they are not broken or defective and that they are the same person they have always been, they are just suffering from an illness, but they are NOT their illness.
  3. Help them if you can to get to their appointments, make sure they are taking their medications and actually talking to their doctors and/or other mental health professionals. That help can come from driving them to their appointments to simply reminding them to take their medication or to go to their appointments.
  4. Show and tell them that you love them and that you are there for them through thick and thin.
  5. Ask them what they need. Don’t just assume. The person who is sick generally knows what is best for them. They may need you to help clean the house or bring them dinner if they are too sick to do so.
  6. Check in with them, make sure that they are okay and following their treatment plan. This not only helps keep them accountable and responsible, but it also serves as a reminder that they have someone who cares about them

Is Helping Egotistic or Altruistic?


This past weekend on my way home at past 3 a.m., I saw a car on the side of the interstate with it’s hazard lights on. As I got closer to my exit, I noticed that it was four young ladies trying to change a flat tire.

I got off on my exit thinking that someone else would stop, but I decided to get back on the interstate to check on them. That required me getting back on the interstate going in the opposite direction, just to get off at the next exit, get back on and come back in their direction.

This took me close to ten minutes and I thought for sure, by then either someone else would have stopped (the interstate was quite busy for 3 a.m.) or that they would have figured it out by then.

As I approached their car on the interstate, it was obvious that neither had happened.

I stopped and asked if they needed help, and they all said in unison “please”. So at 3 a.m. I got down and dirty and changed their tire. It only took about ten minutes and they were very grateful.

They commented that they had seen at least four police cars pass by and they couldn’t believe no one stopped to help them. They thanked me for rescuing them from being stranded and we went our separate ways.

This isn’t the first time I have been in this type of situation.

Once at a nightclub I heard a lot of commotion and saw a guy beating up a girl while dozens of people others by watching in horror. I fought my way through a crowd of people, thinking that by the time I got to that side of the club, someone else would have stepped in, but no one did.

I ended up being the one pulling the guy off the girl. I was shocked at how many others just stood by and watched.

A similar incident happened years later in a Walmart parking lot when someone was being attacked in their car by a guy. I heard the screaming, saw a crowd of people standing around and watching, and then noticed someone helpless was being assaulted.

I ran across the parking lot, thinking once again, by the time I got there someone else would have intervened, but no one did, and once again I ended up being the one pulling the attacker off of his victim while others stood around and watched (someone did call 911 but they didn’t get there for at least another ten minutes).

I am not recommending anybody should do either of the three things I mentioned above because it could have ended up badly, but it got me to thinking about why I felt the need to help in those situations and why do we in general, help others.

While most of us like to think that when we are helping others we are being purely altruistic, often times we are helping for egotistic reasons.

Egotistic helping is motivated by a desire of the person helping, to advance their interest, rather than the interest of the person being helped. The person being helped may benefit, but that wasn’t the sole purpose of the helping.

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This occurs during times such as:

  • we are just doing our jobs
  • are interested in a challenge
  • seeking power, fame, or recognition
  • want to feel like a savior, rescuer, etc.

Some theorists believe that all helping is egotistic and that even when we are helping others, we are working for our own self-interest. This is called egoistic reduction, in which all helping is in the service of self-interest.

According to this theory, I intervened in the three examples above to be Superman, to rescue stranded, helpless individuals, and not purely for altruistic reasons.

Another psychological theory called negative state relive hypothesis says that we help to reduce the feelings of guilt we may feel if we didn’t help.

In the above scenarios, I agree that this may have been the case. Maybe I helped because if I didn’t, I would have felt guilty, if only briefly for not intervening when I could have.

Both of these are forms of egotistic helping, although other people benefited from my self-serving motives.

Other factors influence rather we are likely to help others or not such as:

  • the weather
  • our mood
  • ambiant noise
  • if we are in a hurry
  • if we think other people are looking
  • the attractiveness of the person
  • the gender.of the person

We are also more likely to help those that we feel are similar to us. This is called similarity bias, a form of reflexive favoritism we usually don’t even know we are influenced by.

Lastly, according to evolutionary psychology, we help others because it’s in our DNA.

We help because we are all products of other humans who benefited from helping to ensure the continuation of our species. To understand this instinct we may call it altruism or morality, but it is ultimately instinctual.

If you look at helping this way, then all helping is egotistic as it serves to help pass on our genes as human beings to the next generation.

So why do we really help? Is it purely egotistic or biological? Chances are it is a combination of altruism, egotistic motives, situations and biological factors.

In the situation on the interstate, I know for a fact that I stopped because it was four attractive young ladies. I wanted to help because I knew it would feel good to be the savior, I was worried about their safety and would feel guilty if I kept going.

The next time you help someone, ask yourself why are you really helping? You may be surprised at the answer.