This page is for friends and family of someone who is experiencing a mental health problem, who wish to support them to seek help.
Most people experiencing a mental health problem will speak to friends and family before they speak to a health professional, so the support you offer can be really valuable. This page contains information on:
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, and often it can be the most valuable help you can offer. 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.
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 pages on getting involved in decisions and 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 a lift to their appointment
- 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.
- 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 where to start and what might happen).
- Look after yourself, and make sure you don't become unwell.
- 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 are not posing immediate danger to themself or someone else). 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 health care professional 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 consent.
If your friend or family member is having delusions or seeing things that other people can't see, they may not realise or agree that they need to seek help. They may be feeling paranoid, or experiencing psychosis. In this case, it can also be helpful to:
- try not to either validate or challenge their perceptions
- acknowledge how their perceptions are making them feel (for example anxious or unsafe)
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:
- are experiencing suicidal feelings, and feel they may act on them
- are behaving in a way that's putting themself or someone else at immediate, serious risk of harm
In this situation, as long as you feel safe to do so, you should stay with them and help them follow the steps outlined in our page on seeking help in a crisis. (See our pages on crisis services and supporting someone who feels suicidal 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 consent. 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 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 (see our pages on sectioning and consent to treatment for more information).
It might also be a good idea to talk this through with someone you trust.
How can I look after myself?
Supporting someone else can be stressful. 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.
- Be realistic about what you can do and don't take too much on. 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 lots.
For more ideas about how to keep yourself well, see our pages on coping as a carer, improving and maintaining your wellbeing, and managing stress.
This information was published in January 2015. We will revise it in 2018.