Living with Mental Illness – 5 Tips for Friends and Family

Written by AnneMarie McDonnell, a volunteer with the Limerick Mental Health Association and graduate of the University of Limerick.

HandsMental illness can be hugely difficult and debilitating for the person experiencing it and can impact heavily on their lifestyle, work and relationships. However, trying to manage mental illness from the outside can also place a significant strain on their family and friends. Here are five tips we think you will find useful when it comes to tackling the challenges of a friend or family member’s mental illness.

  1. Look after your own mental health first: We have all heard the safety instructions relating to the oxygen masks on the plane; If you don’t look after your own first, you can be of no real help to others. The same is true when it comes to supporting friends and family members with their mental health problems. It is important to remember that not allowing yourself to become overburdened is not an act of selfishness but of selflessness.

  2. Support a healthy lifestyle – Though many mental illnesses will require ongoing medication, there are some good habits you can encourage to help maintain optimum mental and physical health for the whole family. Eating a healthy diet full of essential vitamins and minerals will help to promote basic brain health and tissue growth. Engaging in regular exercise is another medically proven way to boost mood and promote wellbeing. Of course, overindulging in alcohol or other addictive substances should also be discouraged.

  3. Reach out – Living with mental illness can create intense pressure for the entire family. Though it is important that the family member living with illness is supported emotionally and practically as required, it is also crucial that other family members have their own outlet in which to vent any worries and frustrations they may have. That outlet might be a counsellor, good friend or dedicated support network. What is important is that you allow yourself the space to express and process your feelings. Alcoholics Anonymous, Aware, Shine and Bodywhys all run support groups specifically for family, friends and carers.

  4. Know your limits – On occasion, you may be confronted with the judgement of others who perceive that you ‘should just get help’ for the person failing to take their medication or seek the necessary medical attention. You should remind yourself that these people are not living in your reality and likely do not realise that you are dealing with an independent individual who has the right to exercise their own free will.  Though you should encourage help to be sought if necessary, offering practical assistance if they are agreeable, remember that you are unable to force someone else’s will and do not be afraid to explain that fact to others. 

  5. In times of crisis, know who to call – Because mental health problems span a wide spectrum, some will be more challenging than others. There are courses, supports and information available in times of crisis.  Check out for more information on the supports available.