Being related to someone with mental illness

Relatives have an important role for those affected by mental illness, here are some valuable tips based on various common diagnoses.


Make sure you are well informed about your relative’s illness. It’s good that you have the same picture of the problem and what can help. Avoid helping with safety behaviors. A suitable challenge for your loved one reduces the risk of worsening the condition.


Relatives have an important role for the depressed. For starters, it may be loved ones that first understand that it’s about depression, that the person has changed in several ways. As a relative, it’s important to show that you can cope with the person feeling bad, but that you also want to help. To encourage the person who feels bad to seek care, but also being available to talk or socialize.

A depressed person who withdraws and becomes increasingly passive may need to be convinced to break this. It’s a balancing act that can be difficult to insist on, without forcing it on the person. You should always ask about hopelessness, thoughts of death and suicidal thoughts. You can also seek help yourself for more information on how you can help.

Suicidal Thoughts

Everyone who works with suicide prevention agrees that one of the most important messages is “TO DARE ASK!” It’s very uncommon for someone to be offended by the question: “Hey, I’ve noticed that you haven’t been feeling well. Are you having thoughts about not wanting to live anymore?”

To increase the chance of getting an honest answer from a person who has suicidal thoughts at the time, you need to keep in mind that the person may have several reasons for withholding it.

  • If they think you will panic and start acting if they tell you.
  • If they think you will start to feel very bad about knowing it.
  • If they think it will spread to others.

Therefore, it is important to try to tell the person that you’re worried but that you’re able to hear how they feel and about any suicidal thoughts. That is to say, “I’m worried about you, but I can deal with knowing if you’re feeling really bad and have thoughts of suicide. In fact, I’m more worried about not knowing how you’re doing.”

You should avoid promises about keeping the other person’s suicidal thoughts secret. If it comes to a point where it’s dangerous or urgent, life and death are more important than “loyalty.” It’s possible to repair the relationship with the survivor.

Bipolar Disorder

As a relative, one should learn about bipolar disorder. Many health care facilities offer classes for relatives. Also draw up a “contract” with the person who has bipolar disorder. “If I get excited/manic in the future, I want you to do this.” It may also include agreeing that the relatives should bring the person to the hospital, even if they themselves don’t want to. Make sure you have good contact with the doctor/therapist.


Encourage the person to seek care. Don’t be judgmental! It may be difficult to notice that a person you care about is hurting themselves intentionally. But in order for you to be a support, it’s important that you show that you care even if you’re worried. Getting angry: “How can you do this to yourself, think of the scars” will only mean that your loved one won’t talk to you and hide the behavior.

Instead, you can help by showing that you care and are interested in how your loved one is feeling: “I see that you’ve cut yourself again, I guess you’ve had a really tough time. How are you? Can I help in some way?” Sometimes, it can be a matter of asking without requiring an answer, many times before the person chooses to tell how it is. Sometimes it’s a cup of tea and watching TV together that helps the most.

Eating Disorders

Relatives play an important role in treatment, not just for children and adolescents. It’s partly about ways to manage one’s mood and one’s relationships, and partly about practical things like how fast one eats, how much a normal serving is. Having support from close relatives increases the chance of having a good effect on the treatment. Going to treatment is tough and can be hard to motivate, so support from relatives is important here as well.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder/OCD

It’s good if you understand how obsessive-compulsive disorder works but also how your loved one is affected. Here it’s important that you don’t become part of the “compulsive system” by, for example, starting to take care of hygiene in an excessive way or contribute many “soothing messages.” Instead, encourage your loved ones so that they can endure their anxieties instead of calming down or being calmed by the compulsive actions.