Helping a friend or family member with mental illness can be hugely rewarding and challenging at the same time. It makes sense: it feels great to see someone you care about do better, so you'll pursue good moments and do a lot to help your friend feel good.
Helping a friend to deal with mental illness or emotional challenges can be tough. It may not always be a smooth ride. But it’s important to know when being challenged can be too much. Taking care of yourself while helping a friend means recognizing that your own needs are also important. Supporting someone might require a lot of your time and energy and it can be easy to neglect your own self-care.
It can take more than one person to support someone going through a tough time. It’s not all up to you. Share the experience by reaching out to other friends, family members, teachers, guidance counsellors, family doctors or a counsellor/ therapist.
It can be especially challenging if your friend is having a hard time accepting their condition, or refusing to get professional help. The tips in this section can help you sort through this situation.
Being there for someone can be fulfilling, part of a mutual relationship, uplifting, meaningful, life-changing and maybe even life-saving. Just as it is important to notice the good moments through this tough time, you need to be aware of how the relationship affects you. Being there for a friend or loved one while they are unwell requires lots of energy and balance.
It can bring up many hard-to-take feelings in you, such as:
- guilt and frustration at seeing your friend unhappy;
- impatience that things don't change fast enough, or consistently enough;
- sadness, distress or anger that this is happening at all;
- sadness or grief because you miss the way things used to be;
- fear or concern that this could happen to other people you love, including yourself;
- resentment, if you feel that your friend's illness is taking up all of your time or attention.
Feeling this way does not mean that you are a bad person, or that you have stopped caring. You have a right to every feeling you have. But you also have to process these feelings in a healthy way, so that they don’t become overwhelming.
No one is immune to these responses. When they occur, acknowledge them for what they are: a normal, human response to a very difficult situation. Find support in others and reach out to support centres or resources and other people, or try journaling as a way to reflect on the situation privately.
People sometimes experience compassion fatigue when helping others, which is a sense of feeling overwhelmed and unrewarded. It can happen because a person takes on too much responsibility for helping someone else – either because they feel like they are the only one who can help, or because the other person demands too much of them.
The sense of feeling overwhelmed or exhausted can happen for several reasons. For example if you have:
- difficulty asking for help;
- a strong and unrealistic need to make things ideal for your friend;
- difficulty saying “no”;
- a habit of neglecting yourself and your needs for the benefit of others;
- the belief that you are the only person that can care for or help your friend or loved one.
Taking care of yourself is important. It can be overwhelming if your friend is:
- making demands of you that you feel are unreasonable;
- taking their frustrations out on you, or becoming aggressive or abusive;
- always making everything about them, leaving no room for your feelings, stories or needs;
- being constantly defensive;
- giving mixed messages, such as asking for your help, but pushing you or your efforts to help them away;
- expecting you to have a similar mood to theirs, or resenting your happiness;
- unable to set appropriate boundaries;
- taking you and your efforts for granted, or making you feel nothing is good enough.
Taking care of yourself may also include knowing when to step away from the situation, to give yourself the time and space to figure out what you need. It's easy to focus on your friend's stresses and to forget about your own. Read on for signs to watch out for.
Physical or behavioural changes, such as fatigue, loss of appetite or changes in eating patterns, difficulty sleeping, restlessness, headaches, increased susceptibility to colds & flu or infection, , , changes in alcohol and drug consumption, taking frustrations out on others or other areas of your life.
Emotional effects, such as continuously feeling angry, resentful or irritated with your friend or in general, conflicted feelings or guilt, feeling helpless, overwhelmed, inadequate, fragile, vulnerable, unable to cope or go on, increased mood swings, decreased motivation, feeling burned out, crying more frequently and easily, isolation, changes in communication patterns and other relationship dynamics, withdrawal, feeling numb or detached.
Changes in thinking and awareness, such as confusion, difficulty making decisions, difficulty problem solving, having memory blanks, questioning why this happened in a world that is supposed to be safe, and difficulty concentrating or paying attention. Your friend’s perspectives may start to influence your own, so that it’s hard to know what’s healthy and unhealthy.
Self-care can be anything that helps to rebuild or sustain your emotional, physical, mental, social or spiritual balance. Self-care is useful for times when you might be a support to others, but can be practised regularly for emotional wellness. The key is to try to strike a balance between your responsibilities, and those things that help to recharge and maintain our health.
Essential components of self-care include:
- taking time to yourself, including time to eat and sleep well, socialize and exercise;
- educating yourself about mental health and illnesses;
- developing and using a support system.
Here are some things you can do to relieve stress:
- go for a walk or run, do yoga or other physical activities or sports;
- go to a park, be outside or connect with nature;
- eat healthy and drink plenty of water;
- avoid excessive use of alcohol;
- know and respect your limits - if you feel exhausted and need time to yourself, take it;
- get some rest - if you have trouble sleeping, get up and do something relaxing or enjoyable;
- spend time with other family and friends;
- meditate, pray or connect with your faith, if applicable;
- create art, crafts or express yourself through writing or poetry;
- continue to participate in your own interests, social and recreational activities;
- be on the lookout for any changes in your habits, attitudes and moods - notice what you are feeling several times a day;
- get support for yourself if you are feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope;
- check out our fun and educational interactives for more ways to cope with and relieve stress;
- don't forget to laugh!
Boundaries are part of healthy relationships.
Setting boundaries is not always easy but is important because it means establishing healthy limits, such as being able to tell someone when they are behaving in a way that you are having a hard time with or find upsetting. Communicating your opinions and needs assertively, in a clear and firm way, lets others know how you expect to be treated. Others will not know what you are thinking or feeling if you don’t let them know. Setting boundaries requires practicing open communication.
Things you can do include:
- making a list of things that define a healthy relationship for you;
- sharing this list with your friend, partner or family member;
- making a list of behaviours you find acceptable and unacceptable;
- talking to your friend about their expectations;
- communicating your needs.
Some further questions can help you to distinguish between helping and over-helping a friend. Consider how you might answer these questions (writing your answers down can be helpful).
- Finish this sentence: Being a support to others is...
- What does my friend expect of me?
- What do I expect of myself in this relationship?
- What do I expect of my friend?
- Are the expectations realistic?
- Do I always have to be there?
- How much time can I comfortably dedicate to helping my friend?
- How do I define helping?
- When is helping over helping?
- What if I get in too deep?
If someone chooses not to respect your needs and continues to overstep your boundaries, you can always choose to walk away, or remove yourself from the situation, until they understand and learn to respect your wishes. If you need further support to learn how to set boundaries in a healthy way, talk to someone.
There is a difference between supporting someone and trying to rescue them and it can be difficult to distinguish one from the other. But if something feels like it's too much, that is a good indication that it might be.
As much as you might wish you could "fix" someone or "fix" things for them, you can't do someone else's emotional work for them. The thing to remember though – and this is the trickiest thing about caring for someone who is going through a hard time — is that your friend's emotional state is beyond your control. . Know that you are not responsible for your friend or family member’s condition. As much as you want to, you cannot control how your friend will feel from day to day. Nor can you control the kind of support they receive. People reach out for treatment precisely so they can get a better grasp of their life.
Your friend or loved one might only make small steps to start. It might mean choosing to inform themselves by reading a book about their condition; starting a journal to express and sort through their thoughts, feelings or actions; choosing a healthy activity to cope or make them happy; or ultimately, seeking professional help.
Trying to rescue someone can be unhealthy or even harmful to both people involved. Rescuing means over-helping and can actually take away from another person's self-determination. It is not helpful and can create a dependency rather than a healthy relationship or a healthy way of dealing with mental illness.
It can become easy to neglect your own needs while helping someone to deal with mental health issues. You might even feel guilty for focusing on your own needs, thinking that your friend or family member is in a worse spot than you are. Or perhaps they are even making you feel guilty for it. This is why it is important to understand your own boundaries, what helping means to you, what you are comfortable doing to help, how much time you are comfortable devoting to your friend, and what your own limits are.
Remember that if you are feeling overwhelmed, you can reach out and talk to someone, like a friend, family member, or a professional. Even if your friend refuses to get help, you can still get support for yourself while being there for them.