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How can I support my loved ones if they have mental health issues?

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What should you do if one of your loved ones – your wife, your partner, your child, or your friend – suddenly changes? If they are no longer happy and fun-loving like they used to be – and are withdrawing from social life? Are they maybe depressed?

In this article, we offer checklists, information, and services that will help you to detect mental illness among your friends and loved ones at an early stage. We also provide tips on how you can talk to the person affected about your concerns regarding a potential issue.

We address the following questions: 

  1. What mental illnesses are there?
  2. What are the most common causes of mental illness?
  3. How can I tell whether a loved one has mental health issues?
  4. Can psychological problems cause physical pain?
  5. Can I help a depressed family member myself?
  6. What support or specialists can I recommend to a mentally ill person?
  7. What should I do if my loved one refuses my help?
  8. What preventative measures can I take to protect my loved ones against mental and emotional stress?
  9. In short: The top five tips for friends and family of mentally ill persons

Important

If someone is experiencing a mental health emergency, they should consult a doctor immediately, or contact the "Die Dargebotene Hand/La Main Tendue" organization by dialing the number 143.

What mental illnesses are there?

Mental illnesses can take many forms. Depression and burnout are the most well known. However, there are many other disorders that are considered to be a mental illness.

Overview of mental illnesses:

  • Depression and bipolar disorder
  • Burnout
  • Dependency and addiction
  • Anxiety disorders and phobias
  • Panic and compulsive disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Eating disorders, e.g. anorexia and bulimia
  • Psychosis and schizophrenia

Approximately half of the people in Switzerland are affected at least once in their life by a psychological crisis. However, awareness of the subject of depression and other mental illnesses is lacking among the wider population. Symptoms of depression and how they are treated are also widely unknown. Moreover, those who are affected fear being stigmatized because of false prejudices. Few seek the help of a doctor. Even though for most people who suffer from mental issues, such as depression or burnout, recovery is possible.

What are the most common causes of mental illness?

Psychological problems can intensify gradually. They often take hold over an extended period of time. In the case of depression, burnout, and other psychological disorders, individual sudden factors are seldom the cause; Rather, the affected persons often go through several phases which trigger psychological stress.

Causes of mental illness in different phases of life

Stress during studies, on the job, and work:

  • Difficulties transitioning from school to an apprenticeship
  • Challenges when transitioning from education/training to full-time work
  • Fear when transitioning from full-time work to retirement
  • Stresses in the workplace and in education/training: Stress, bullying, pressure to perform/succeed
  • Job loss
  • Difficulties finding a job

Relationship tensions:

  • Breaking ties with immediate family
  • Entering into a partnership
  • Discovering sexuality
  • Finding sexual identity
  • Starting a family
  • Loss of a key figure (for example through separation, divorce, death, or illness)

How can I tell whether a loved one has mental health issues?

Behavioral changes can point to psychological stress. Symptoms can include withdrawal from active life, despondency, and/or lethargy. Sadness or complaints of trouble sleeping are also often symptoms of psychological problems. People who are depressed leave the house less and less over time. They often are irritable or have a hard time concentrating. If they are paranoid or have panic attacks, hear voices, experience hallucinations, or have confused thought processes, they may even have a psychosis.

Can psychological problems cause physical pain?

Yes – psychological strain such as depression can also lead to physical illnesses and impact the life of the affected person in this way, too. For example, a lot of sad, stressed, or mentally impaired people complain first about headaches. This is followed by a feeling of tightness in their chest or digestion problems. If the causes of the pain are not due to physical health issues, this is called a psychosomatic illness. It is a clear sign of a psychological stress.

Can I help a family member with a mental illness myself?

Does your wife, partner, child, or someone else in your circle of friends suffer from a mental illness? The good news is that you can help this person. You can help people with depression and other mental illnesses in different ways. Even the feeling that they are not alone can help somebody who is suffering from depression.

Talk to the affected person in a quiet situation, when you will not be interrupted, and take your time. What matters is that everyone feels comfortable during the entire conversation. Use “I messages” – for example, you could say: “I am worried about you.” Show that you want to help and mention specific support programs, which you have researched before the conversation.

Avoid suggesting your own solutions. Neither well intentioned advice nor comparisons with your own situation are appropriate. In fact, they often exacerbate the situation and emotional perception of a person suffering from depression.

It often helps the affected person to know that you are there for them and will listen. It’s best to ask your loved one directly regarding how you can help and provide support. It’s also a good idea to consider how many resources you yourself are prepared to give and how much time you are able to spend for any care and support the affected person may need.

Checklist: How can I offer to help?

  • Proactively seek dialog.
  • Ask the person how they are doing.
  • Use “I messages,” for example: “I am worried about you.”
  • The most important thing is to listen – you don’t need to give any well intentioned advice.
  • Don’t make any accusations.
  • Take time to talk with the person.
  • Try to understand the situation correctly.
  • Offer your support.

What support or specialists can I recommend to a mentally ill person?

Even a first conversation with a trusted person can motivate an affected person to get help from a support center. In Switzerland, there are various points of contact for people experiencing psychological strain.  

The Pro Mente Sana foundation is a point of contact for people in situations of psychological stress (e.g. with depression or in a life crisis) and for their loved ones and therapists. It provides help in finding answers to questions regarding mental illness.

If the psychologically impaired person trusts their general practitioner, then it would also be reasonable to set up a doctor's appointment. The medical specialist can also prescribe psychotherapy or other suitable treatments.

A first point of contact is the Dargebotene Hand , at the number 143. It is a helpline available to those affected as well as their loved ones around the clock and is anonymous.

For children, young people, and their parents, there are online platforms such as projuventute.ch and Feel-ok.ch , or there is prosenectute.ch, which provides assistance to the elderly.

Overview: What help centers are there?

What should I do if my loved one refuses my help?

What if your help is rejected? Some people find it difficult to talk about their feelings and mental wellbeing. Accept the situation and show your willingness to help. You can’t force anyone to accept help. Mention the option of contacting a help center to get professional help. Help your loved suffering from depression to find the right point of contact, provided this is what they want.

Be sure to comfort the affected person and organize support. Always inform the person of the steps you are taking and tell them about your own feelings. Try to include them in the decision-making process. It would be a mistake to ignore the warning signs of a mental illness like depression. Accusations and guilt are also inappropriate.

If you yourself are suffering from the situation, talk with other friends and family about it. You, too, can seek professional help – for example, in a self-help group for family and friends of people suffering from depression or from a corresponding association such as VASK (german; umbrella association of associations for friends and relatives of the mentally ill).

What preventative measures can I take to protect my loved ones against mental and emotional stress?

Talk about your own feelings and concerns. This way, you can show your openness for the feelings of your partner, husband, child, or parents. Set a good example. Be a good friend in every way and always be a good listener. By having the courage to talk about your own weaknesses and worries, you show empathy and build trust. Let the people you love feel that you believe in them and accept them as they are.

Pursue hobbies and other free-time activities together with your partner, family, or friends. Regularly do things that are good for everyone and that are emotionally uplifting.

Stay socially active together and maintain a circle of friends. Learning something new and being creative also promotes mental health. Both exercise and time for relaxation are equally as important.

In short: The top five tips for friends and family of mentally ill persons

Sum up the courage and talk openly to the affected person. Discuss your concerns and show that you can be trusted and want to help. The experts of AXA and Pro Mente Sana advise the following: 

  • Let the person know that you are there for them.
  • Don’t impose your will and don’t give advice.
  • Always ask whether the person needs help and what kind of help is suitable.
  • Show the person how they can get professional help.
  • Talk with other family members.

Important note: These checklists and tips are in no way intended to replace a diagnosis by a doctor or psychotherapist. If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health emergency, consult a doctor immediately, or contact the "Die Dargebotene Hand/La Main Tendue" organization by dialing the number 143.

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