Giving Real Help to a Loved One With Mental Illness: 10 Questions Someone Struggling With Mental Illness Wishes You Would Ask

Mental Health

There’s still a stigma surrounding mental illness, making it a difficult topic for many people. And when a loved one is struggling with their mental health, it can be especially hard to know what to do or say. If you know someone who’s living with mental illness, but aren’t quite sure what to say, this blog will go over 10 questions you can ask to check in with them.

How To Give Real Help to a Loved One Living With Mental Illness

Pay Attention

When someone is experiencing poor mental health, it’s not as obvious as it is when they’re sick or have had an injury.

Psychologist Jerry Walker III, Ph.D. says that “unless you know a person well and know what their ‘normal’ is, it can be difficult to see if someone is struggling.”

But there are a few signs and symptoms you can look out for:

  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Neglecting basic hygiene
  • Anger or irritability
  • Isolating from friends or family
  • Losing interest in hobbies
  • New or increased drug or alcohol use

Reach Out

Approach your loved one when they’re in a space where they feel safe and secure, like at home. Ask them if they have time to talk and then start the conversation with some open-ended questions like “How are you?” You can dig deeper going from there.

Listen Well

If your loved one opens up and talks to you about their feelings, listen attentively. Maintain eye contact and don’t interrupt or offer unsolicited advice. Let them know that you are not there to judge and that you’re open to hearing about whatever they want to talk about. This can be especially difficult when a child, spouse or other close family member is telling you things that make you uncomfortable, but it’s a crucial part of the process.

If your loved one is saying things like “I want to die” or “I want it all to end,” ask them directly: “Are you thinking about suicide?” Many people think it’s better to steer the conversation away, but talking about suicide is more likely to help than to hurt.

Dr. Walker says:

“In my experience, as a psychologist and as a friend, when people are having those thoughts [of suicide] they’ll actually say yes.”

If you do get a yes from your loved one, immediately follow up with “Do you feel like you’re going to act on these thoughts?”

If the answer is yes, intervene with professional medical or mental health help.

While talking about mental illness, especially suicide, can be uncomfortable or upsetting, it’s very important to do so. Thoughts of suicide are actually more common than you might think and these types of intrusive thoughts are distressing, even for someone who doesn’t want to act on them.

Related: Does Therapy Have To Be Expensive? 5 Ways To Pay for Mental Health Counseling

10 Questions Someone Struggling With Mental Illness Wishes You Would Ask

Here are 10 supportive and non-judgmental questions you can ask someone who’s struggling with their mental health:

1. How Are You Feeling?

Start out with easy, open-ended questions. Ask your loved one how they’ve been feeling. You can encourage them to expand on their answer by noting some specific things you’ve noticed – maybe changes in behaviors or attitudes that are concerning.

A simple way to do this is to say something like:

“I’ve noticed you [quit the basketball team/lost interest in gaming/have been sleeping more/etc.] How are you feeling?”

2. How Would You Like Things To Be Different?

Sometimes, distressing thoughts take the form of wanting things to be different. Someone may regret the decisions they’ve made in the past or be unhappy with where their life is at the moment. Asking this question may encourage them to talk about those thoughts.

3. How Are You Sleeping?

Sleeping a lot more or less than usual is a common sign of mental health concerns.

4. How Has Your Appetite Been?

Drastic appetite changes are often because of a mental health condition. If your loved one seems to be eating a lot less or a lot more than usual, it could be a sign that something’s wrong.

(You can also offer to buy or cook them a meal!)

5. Have You Tried Calling a Helpline?

Ask your loved one if they’ve called or have considered calling a helpline. The National Suicide and Crisis LifeLine can be reached anytime, 24/7, by calling or texting 988. All the people who answer the phones at the lifeline are trained counselors and everything is 100% confidential. Callers can also request services specially designed for certain groups, like veterans and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

6. Is There Anything You Want To Talk About?

This is another open-ended question that can get people talking. If you know of any specific life events that may be distressing the person, ask directly.

You can say something like:

“I know you recently [broke up with a partner/had a divorce in the family/lost your job/lost a loved one/etc.] Anything you want to talk about?”

7. How Can I Help?

Simply ask how you can help. An example is:

“I care about you. Is there anything I can do to help you get through this?”

If the answer is “no,” consider offering something anyway – something simple that might help them feel better, like a small gift or even a lunch or coffee.

8. Can I Run an Errand for You or Help You With Something Else?

If your friend can’t think of ways you can help, make some suggestions. Offer to run errands or help them with a project.

9. Is It Ok if I Check In on You Later This Week?

Ask if it’s ok to check in with them later and make sure that if you say you will check in, that you do. 

10. Can I Look up Some Information and Resources for You?

If your loved one isn’t familiar with any lifelines or other resources, ask if you can do a little research for them. There are lots of mental health resources and support groups and many are online, making them easy to access.

Mental Health Support in the Greater Tidewater Hampton Roads Area of Virginia

In the Greater Tidewater Hampton Roads area of Virginia, Region Five is your authority on mental health. If you or a loved one is struggling, we are here for you. There are nine community services board locations in Region Five where you can get affordable and accessible help for mental health concerns.

We also offer a local crisis line for anyone experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis. You can reach the Region Five Crisis Line anytime 24/7 at 757-656-7755. You can also dial or text 988 to reach someone if you have a 757 area code.

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Infographic - Ask These 10 Questions To Check In With Your Child or Teen’s Mental Health
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