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Seeking help for a mental health problem

A guide to taking the first steps, making empowered decisions and getting the right support for you.

What emotional support can I offer?

If someone lets you know that they are experiencing difficult thoughts and feelings, it's common to feel like you don't know what to do or say – but you don't need any special training to show someone you care about them. Often just being there for someone and doing small things can be really valuable. For example:

  • Listen. Simply giving someone space to talk, and listening to how they're feeling, can be really helpful in itself. If they're finding it difficult, let them know that you're there when they are ready.
  • Offer reassurance. Seeking help can feel lonely, and sometimes scary. You can reassure someone by letting them know that they are not alone, and that you will be there to help.
  • Stay calm. Even though it might be upsetting to hear that someone you care about is distressed, try to stay calm. This will help your friend or family member feel calmer too, and show them that they can talk to you openly without upsetting you.
  • Be patient. You might want to know more details about their thoughts and feelings, or want them to get help immediately. But it's important to let them set the pace for seeking support themselves.
  • Try not to make assumptions. Your perspective might be useful to your friend or family member, but try not to assume that you already know what may have caused their feelings, or what will help.
  • Keep social contact. Part of the emotional support you offer could be to keep things as normal as possible. This could include involving your friend or family member in social events, or chatting about other parts of your lives.

I had one friend who helped me by just listening and never judging. Without him my recovery time would have been much longer.

What practical support can I offer?

There are lots of practical things you can do to support someone who is ready to seek help. For example:

  • Look for information that might be helpful. When someone is seeking help they may feel worried about making the right choice, or feel that they have no control over their situation. Our page on making yourself heard will give you some ideas on what research you can do, and ways you can help someone think about what might work for them.
  • Help to write down lists of questions that the person you're supporting wants to ask their doctor, or help to put points into an order that makes sense (for example, most important point first).
  • Help to organise paperwork, for example making sure that your friend or family member has somewhere safe to keep their notes, prescriptions and records of appointments.
  • Go to appointments with them, if they want you to – even just being there in the waiting room can help someone feel reassured.
  • Ask them if there are any specific practical tasks you could help with, and work on those. For example, this could include:
    • offering them a lift somewhere
    • arranging childcare for them
    • taking over a chore or household task.
  • Learn more about the problem they experience, to help you think about other ways you could support them. Our website provides lots of information about different types of mental health problems, including pages on what friends and family can do to help in each case.

What can I do if someone doesn't want my help?

If you feel that someone you care about is clearly struggling but can't or won't reach out for help, and won't accept any help you offer, it's understandable to feel frustrated, distressed and powerless. But it's important to accept that they are an individual, and that there are always limits to what you can do to support another person.

You can:

  • Be patient. You won't always know the full story, and there may be reasons why they are finding it difficult to ask for help.
  • Offer emotional support and reassurance. Let them know you care about them and you'll be there if they change their mind.
  • Inform them how to seek help when they're ready (for example, you could show them our pages on talking to your GP and what might happen at the appointment).
  • Look after yourself, and make sure you don't become unwell yourself.

You can't:

  • Force someone to talk to you. It can take time for someone to feel able to talk openly, and putting pressure on them to talk might make them feel less comfortable telling you about their experiences.
  • Force someone to get help (if they're over 18, and it's not an emergency situation). As adults, we are all ultimately responsible for making our own decisions. This includes when – or if – we choose to seek help when we feel unwell.
  • See a doctor for someone else. A doctor might give you general information about symptoms or diagnoses, but they won't be able to share any specific advice or details about someone else without their agreement.

Can you make someone get help with their mental health?

Lucy from Mind's information team answers one of the hardest questions we get on our helpline, 'Can you make someone get help?'

What if they believe things that seem very unusual or scary to me?

If someone is experiencing reality in a very different way from people around them, they may not realise or agree that seeking help could be useful for them. They may be experiencing psychosis, mania, hearing voices or feeling very paranoid. In this case, it can also be helpful to:

  • Focus on how their beliefs are making them feel (for example anxious, scared, threatened or confused), as these feelings will be very real.
  • Avoid confirming or denying their beliefs. Instead it can help to say something like "I understand that you see things that way, but it's not like that for me."

There are a lot of misunderstandings about what it means to experience psychosis. Lots of people wrongly think that the word 'psychotic' means 'dangerous'. But it's important to remember that in reality, very few people who experience psychosis ever hurt anyone else. (See our page on stigma and misconceptions for more information.)

What can I do if it's an emergency?

There may be times when your friend or family member needs to seek help more urgently, such as if they:

  • have harmed themselves and need medical attention
  • are having suicidal feelings, and feel they may act on them
  • are putting themselves or someone else at immediate, serious risk of harm.

If they are not safe by themselves right now 

Stay with them and help them call 999 for an ambulance, if you feel able to do so. Or you could help them get to A&E. They may appreciate it if you can wait with them until they can see a doctor.

If they can keep themselves safe for a little while 

You can get quick medical advice by contacting NHS 111 in England, or NHS 111 Wales (in Wales, you can select option 2 for urgent mental health support). Or you could help them make an emergency GP appointment to see a doctor soon.

You can also encourage them to call Samaritans on 116 123 to talk to someone, 24 hours a day. Or you could suggest they try another helpline or listening service.

It may also help to remove things they could use to harm themselves, especially if they have mentioned specific things they might use.

If you or others feel in danger right now

You can call 999 and ask for the police to help. You might feel worried about getting someone in trouble, but it's important to put your own safety first.

If you're not in a situation like this right now, but you're worried someone you care about may experience a mental health crisis in the future, it's a good idea to make a crisis plan with them to work out what steps you will take to help them in an emergency. See our page on planning for a crisis for more information.

How does someone get sectioned?

In exceptional circumstances it's possible to keep a person in hospital under a section of the Mental Health Act (often called being sectioned), and treat them without their agreement. The decision to section someone is very serious, and can only be taken by a team of approved mental health professionals (AMHPs).

If you feel someone is at serious, immediate risk and will not approach anyone for help, you can contact their local social services, who can decide to arrange an assessment (you can usually find the number for social services on the local council's website).

This is a heavy responsibility, so before taking action it's important that you understand what might happen, and what your loved one's rights are. It might also be a good idea to talk this through with someone you trust.

(See our legal pages on sectioning and agreeing to treatment for more information).

How can I look after myself?

Supporting someone else can be challenging. Making sure that you look after your own wellbeing can mean that you have the energy, time and distance to help someone else. For example:

  • Take a break when you need it. If you're feeling overwhelmed by supporting someone or it's taking up a lot of time or energy, taking some time for yourself can help you feel refreshed.
  • Talk to someone you trust about how you're feeling. You may want to be careful about how much information you share about the person you're supporting, but talking about your own feelings to a friend can help you feel supported too.
  • Set boundaries and be realistic about what you can do. Your support is really valuable, but it's up to your friend or family member to seek support for themselves. Remember that small, simple things can help, and that just being there for them is probably helping a lot.
  • Share your caring role with others, if you can. It's often easier to support someone if you're not doing it alone.

For more ideas about how to keep yourself well, see our pages on coping when supporting someone else, improving and maintaining your wellbeing, and managing stress.

This information was published in December 2017.

This page is currently under review. All content was accurate when published. 

References and bibliography available on request.

If you want to reproduce this content, see our permissions and licensing page.

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