overview of family support
It can be difficult to support a loved one who is struggling. It’s common to be unsure of how to act and what to do. Here you can learn how to help your loved one and assist their healthcare team. It’s not uncommon for people to become so worried that they end up struggling too. Don’t forget to take care of yourself as well as your loved one!
Please click on the questions below to learn how you can help.
Call your local crisis or suicide hotline. If you know or believe someone might be close to harming themselves or others, call for help. Crisis and suicide hotlines are not just for those suffering. They usually respond to family members too.
how do I prepare for the visit?
- Family doctors are often the backbone of a patient’s mental health care team. Many are well versed in mental health and addiction issues. Some doctors concentrate mostly on physical problems. If that appears to be the case for your doctor, ask if they can consult with a psychiatrist.
- Mental health issues can take a little while to discuss. Consider booking a double appointment.
- You can ask your doctor for advice on how to help your loved one.
- If the visit might be stressful, bring a friend or family member with you.
- Prepare a list of the concerns you have. Pay particular attention to any unusual behaviors your loved one is showing. Note what they are doing and how long it has been going on.
- Make sure you fully understand everything that is said.
Ask questions if there is anything you don’t understand.
- Take notes.
- Ask for a follow-up appointment if necessary.
- If you and your loved one do not have the same doctor, you can ask your loved one’s doctor if you could share some observations with him or her. Get consent from your loved one to do this.
- You can contact your local medical association. Ask if there are doctors who take new patients.
- You could also ask a local, regional or national mental health association what other options you may have. You can find these organizations online. Search for “mental health association” and the name of your area. You may end up seeing a health professional other than a doctor.
There are many ways to treat mental health and substance use problems. We can’t list all of them, but here are a few examples:
- Talk therapy/counseling:
Research shows that therapy is often the best first step in treating mental health and addiction. Most therapists and counselors use a combination of approaches or techniques. Our program, Kelty’s Key, is based on cognitive behavioral therapy. Other types of therapy include dialectical behavior therapy and motivational interviewing.
Medication can be an important part of treatment. This is often the case for moderate to severe mental health issues. It can take a while to find the right medication and dosage. Some substance use problems can be helped with medication. Research shows that it is ideal to use a combination of medication and talk therapy.
- Exercise, Sleep and Nutrition:
Exercise, sleep and nutrition rarely “cure” mental health or substance use problems. But they can be important in supporting recovery. Exercise and sleep hygiene have been found to be particularly helpful. Be cautious of claims that vitamins, minerals or herbs can cure mental health or substance use issues.
Sometimes a person needs intensive treatment that is best carried out in a hospital. This is particularly true when a person’s behavior is a threat to themselves or others. Some people experience delusions or hallucinations so severe that they cannot function anymore. Hospitalization can also be useful in these cases. There are also certain treatments that are only offered in the context of hospitalization.
Hospitalization can also give your loved one more treatment options. For example, brain stimulation is a procedure only done in a hospital. This treatment increases or decreases brain activity. It is often considered when other methods have not helped. This includes electroconvulsive therapy, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, and other related techniques. Note that electroconvulsive therapy is not the fearful “electroshock” that it once was.
- A health professional can be anyone qualified to help your loved one get better. Examples include family doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and nurses.
- Make notes of when and what you objectively observe. For example, “Joe has not left the basement since January 27. He stopped participating in family meals right after Christmas.” Share your notes with your loved one’s healthcare team.
- If possible, discuss your observations with your loved one, without judgment.
- Offer to go to appointments with your loved one.
- Follow the health professionals’ suggestions.
- Ask questions if you do not understand something.
- Support your loved one in following any treatment plans.
- Learn about treatment approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavior therapy. You are free to read and use any of the Kelty’s Key units and courses on our site.
- Treatment often involves practicing coping skills at home. Ask your loved one if they’d like some help practicing these skills.
or get help for it. What do I do?
- Listen to your loved one. Listen more than you talk. Acknowledge what your loved one is saying, even if you disagree. For example, you might say: “It sounds like you have been feeling sleepy lately.” It is difficult to change a person’s point of view. Be supportive of your loved one and seek assistance. Other family members have found that contradicting their loved one usually doesn’t help.
- One of the most important things you can do is maintain/rebuild your connection with your loved one. Don’t just focus on their problems and your concerns. You can be supportive in a lot of different ways. Your relationship might be a key component to their recovery. Even people who don’t seem to want it can benefit from a connection. Don’t forget that isolation is a symptom of many mental health problems. It can also make them worse.
- Right now, life may look bleak and impossible for your loved one. Help them build and maintain confidence and hope. Don’t try to paint life rosier than it is. Instead, you can point out when you see something positive. For example, you might thank them for their help washing the car or compliment their clothing. You can tell your loved one what you hope for them in the future. You might say something like “I know this is far off for you right now, but I can see you having a job like this eventually.” Focus on your loved one’s strengths, not their weaknesses.
- It’s impossible to know for sure. Some mental health problems are acute and resolve within a year, some are episodic, while others are chronic.
- Your loved one may be prone to thoughts and feelings related to their condition for some time. Someone who suffered from addiction may still have the urge to use a substance years later. What can change quickly is your loved one’s ability to cope. Treatment can help your loved one learn how to manage their thoughts and urges. Medication can also hold back the symptoms of some conditions. With these skills and tools, your loved one will be better equipped to prevent a relapse. Remember that it is better to treat mental health or substance use problems early.
- Know your loved one’s treatment plan and support them through it.
- Check in with your loved one regularly. You can contact your loved one informally or on a schedule. Ask how your loved one would like to connect with you. You might have a weekly dinner or phone call. Ask your loved one for advice on how to connect. Let your loved one explain what questions are helpful and which to avoid.
- Support your loved one in the activities they find helpful and those suggested by their healthcare team. Be patient. Living with a mental health or substance use problem has many ups and downs. Expect to be on a rollercoaster ride once in a while!
- Support your loved one with their sleep hygiene, nutrition, and exercise. Acknowledge and encourage your loved one’s social, professional, and educational efforts.
- If your loved one is an adult, treat them like one! They may need support but they also need their independence.
- Attend support and educational groups. They will help you learn more about your loved one’s experience.
- Read about people doing well in recovery. Your librarian can help you find material.
- Check out the section: “How can I assist health professionals in helping my loved one?”
- There are two main types of support, practical and emotional. Not everyone can do everything, and not everyone needs it all or is good at providing it all. And that’s not a problem. Your loved one needs a variety of people to support them in different ways. It’s best to take on a portion of the support, not the whole thing! You don’t have to do it all.
- Practical Support:
This type of support includes helping with organization and planning. It can include driving to appointments, sorting out bills, or meal preparation. You could also help with the housework or childcare. Distracting your loved one with fun social activities can also be helpful.
- Emotional Support:
You can also support your loved one by being a “shoulder to cry on.” Emotional support includes empathy, connection, encouragement, understanding, and sharing. Help remind your loved one of their strengths. You can also sort out boundaries with your loved one’s school, neighbors, employers, family, friends, etc.
- Research shows that mental illness does not only affect the individual but everyone around them. A loved one’s mental illness or addiction issues can affect you in many ways. It can have an impact on your marriage, your work, or your social relationships. For example, you may give up some of your leisure time to help support your loved one. Without your down time, you might become more stressed and anxious than normal, making you less capable of supporting someone else. Feelings of guilt can cause more anxiety and turn into a vicious circle. It is not uncommon for support providers to feel angry and frustrated with their loved one. You need to look after your personal mental health to ensure that you can help your loved one!
- Go to a support group. If you can’t find an in-person support group, check whether you can find one online.
- Talk to a professional such as a therapist, social worker or family physician. Check to see if you have workplace insurance that can help.
- Talk to a friend who will listen to you without stigma and without the need to “fix” you or your loved one.
- Your loved one’s situation may become quite stressful. If you cannot keep up at work, find out if you can go on stress leave.
- Remember that you might need support for as long a time as your loved one.
- Read how others have coped in similar situations. Ask your librarian for help if necessary.
- Establish what strategies you can use to cope and manage your wellbeing.
- Consider yoga, massage, mindfulness and other relaxation techniques.
- Like for your loved one, sleep hygiene, nutrition, and exercise can help.
- Consciously take a break from thinking about your loved one’s problems. Can you go on vacation?
- It’s perfectly okay to need practical and emotional support too! Can someone help you with housework, yard work, groceries, childcare, budgeting, taxes, etc. to help lighten your load?