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When Someone You Love Has Mental Illness

How to be a good advocate

Every year, 26% of Americans—more than one in four—struggle with a mental illness. Among women, the rate is even higher, with almost one in three women facing mental health difficulties in any given year. Mental illness is common, yet it remains stigmatized. Indeed, research suggests that 2/3 of people with mental illness forgo treatment precisely because of this stigma. If someone you love is facing mental health issues, you can play a key role in eliminating stigma and ensuring your loved one gets the treatment he or she needs and deserves.

Learn Everything You Can

Mental illnesses are not personal choices or failures. Mental illness is not something your loved one can control, either. Learning as much as you can about your loved one's specific diagnosis and condition can help you behave more sensitively while also offering you the chance to be a stellar advocate. If your loved one will let you, consider chatting with his or her therapist or doctor. If not, you'll need to spend some time researching the condition on the Internet. Some topics to explore include:

-What are the most common symptoms of this diagnosis?
-How does this diagnosis affect daily life?
-What are the best treatment options?
-What lifestyle remedies might help?
-What do other people with this condition say was most helpful to them?
-Is there anything people with this disorder frequently struggle with? For instance, people with PTSD may be startled by “triggers” that remind them of a traumatic event, while people with depression might be tired of hearing that a positive attitude will cure them.

Be Sensitive With Your Language

You already know that sexist and racist slurs are wrong, and you probably know that using “the r-word” to signal inadequate intelligence is hurtful. People with mental health conditions face stigma and discrimination daily, and the language you choose to use can either compound or alleviate the problem. Talk to your loved one about your use of language, since he or she is the best source for information about what is and is not offensive. Some people with mental health issues, for example, find the term “mental illness” offensive, because it implies something is wrong with them. Others find great comfort in the term, since it treats their symptoms as the product of a real health problem.

Some general tips for language sensitivity include:

-Avoiding stigmatizing language such as crazy or insane.
-Not referring to your loved one as his or her diagnosis. He or she is not a “depressive.” He or she is a person with depression.
-Not attributing everything your loved one does to her diagnosis.
-Keeping your loved one's diagnosis private unless he or she has specifically authorized you to do otherwise.
-Using “people-first” language. A person is not an autistic person; he is a person with autism. Some people with mental illness feel that this approach properly puts the emphasis on humanity.

Listen, Listen, Listen

Your loved one is the expert on his or her lived experience. No matter what the Internet, a doctor, or therapist tells you, the person who lives with a mental illness is the one who knows the most about its daily effects. Its tempting to rely only on “authority” figures for information, but doing so can feel patronizing or insulting to your loved one. If you want to know something, ask your loved one first, and then be sure to intently listen to his or her answer. Some questions to ask include:

-Is there anything I can do to help you with this diagnosis?
-What's it like for you to have this condition?
-How do you feel about the treatment options available to you?
-Does having a diagnosis make you feel better or worse?
-Is there anything you think I need to understand about the challenges you face?

Help With Treatment Options

If the person you love trusts and respects you, one of the best things you can do to help him or her is to aid in the provision of treatment resources. Read all you can about treatment options for your loved one's condition, then offer to help him or her find a good therapist or psychiatrist. Sometimes the first visit is a bit intimidating, so you might even offer to go with your loved one, to help him or her devise a list of questions, or to serve as his or her advocate if the visit feels too overwhelming.

Protect His or Her Rights

In the popular media, those with mental illness are often portrayed as dangerous and unstable criminals. The reality is that those with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Indeed, having a mental illness increases a person's risk of being victimized by almost 300%.

It's of paramount importance to help protect your loved one's rights, and that includes his or her right to decline treatment. Remember, even if medication seems like a good idea to you, the side effects may be unbearable to your loved one. Unless he or she is a danger to themselves or to others, it's not fair to use mental illness as an excuse to undermine his or her autonomy. Some steps you can take to be a good advocate for your loved one include:

-Checking in to make sure he or she feels comfortable with the treatment team and with the approach to treatment.
-Reading up on mental health laws in your area. For instance, under what circumstances can a person be hospitalized against their will?
-Ensuring he or she has a safe place to live.
-Asking what you can do to boost your loved one's safety and independence.

Remember, some people with mental illness will want or need lots of help. In other cases, you might not even notice that your loved one is mentally ill. Let your loved one guide you toward the right approach, and don't be afraid to ask if you're not sure what you can do to help.


Stigma of mental illness remains barrier to treatment. (n.d.). Retrieved from…

Stigma prevents those with mental illnesses from overcoming their disorders, especially adolescents. (2010, June 04). Retrieved from…