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Losing it
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Losing It

10 Tips

for friends and relatives

You are bound to feel anxious and puzzled if someone close to you has a mental health problem or is behaving in a strange and uncharacteristic way. It is often difficult to know what to do for the best. But although you can’t provide complete solutions, there are things you can do to help.

1 Get information
Try and get as much information as you can about the problem affecting your friend or relative – for example, depression or an eating disorder. Knowing more about it will enable you to offer appropriate support and may help you to feel less panicky.

Many voluntary organisations have helpful leaflets, and there may be appropriate books at your local bookshop or library. The internet is another useful source of information, and there are often helpful programmes on radio or TV. Click here for some sources of information that may prove helpful. Remember that information from one source may represent only a single point of view, so you may need to investigate a number of different ones to get a balanced picture.

Of course, you need to be tactful in the way you use this information – don’t force it down your friend/relative's throat! However, the fact that you have learned something may prove helpful if the person wants to discuss their situation.

2 Find help
If they have not already done so, try and persuade the person to seek some outside help. The GP should be the first port of call, but if they are unwilling to see their family doctor, another health professional such as a school nurse or an appropriate helpline could be a good first step.

Services for young people with mental health problems or other stresses are provided by many different organisations, but despite this, your area may lack adequate help. You may have to be very persistent to find out just what is available in order to make the best use of what exists. Your local citizens advice bureau or MIND group can provide information, and parents can phone the Young Minds parent information line. Click here for a list of some of the main organisations that can provide information and support.

'You just go round and round in circles looking for help.'

3 Listen
One of the most helpful things you can do when someone is distressed is simply to listen, even if you find it upsetting. Give the person your full attention while they are talking. Don’t interrupt or make judgements and don’t feel you have to provide any answers. It will probably be a relief for the person to express their feelings and to know that you accept them as they are. Don't adopt a falsely optimistic attitude – if you try to jolly them along or tell them that things can’t be all that bad, they may feel even more isolated.

4 Be reassuring
Mental health problems can be very bewildering and frightening for the person concerned and may make them feel unlovable and worthless. They need lots of reassurance from family and friends. Let the person know you care about them for who they are, not what they do, and try not to feel hurt if they seem unresponsive. Show you understand what they are battling with, that you are there to support them and that help is available. Coping with their own feelings is probably all they can manage at present, but they still need your affection and approval and to know you are there if they need you.

5 Spell things out

As a parent, tell your son or daughter how much you love them and how you are always there to listen to their problems and support them. Make sure they know that they can always come to you if they're in trouble and that you will always stand by them. You may think you are stating the obvious, but your child does not have the experience of being a parent. They may think that they can’t confide in you because you have argued recently, because they have behaved badly or ignored your advice or because they feel that they might let you down. It is your job to impress upon them that none of this matters – they do.

'Don't shut out the parents. We do the caring whatever the age of the young person. It's hard to do in isolation. We need more information and support.'

6 Don’t expect too much
Try not to add to the young person’s anxieties by expecting too much from them. Making a phone call, for example, may seem a simple task to you, but it can be daunting to someone who is very distressed. When the time seems right, give them support so that they can deal with one difficulty or task at a time and encourage them to tackle this in small steps. Make sure you praise them for what they have accomplished.

7 Encourage treatment
If the young person has accepted help, support them so that they can stick with their treatment. It may take several weeks or even months before the person feels the benefit of a particular treatment, so encourage them to be patient. If they are embarrassed about having treatment, you might stress how certain people not thought of as having mental health problems could benefit from treatments such as counselling or social skills training.

8 Be a friend
Friends can often give very valuable support. It is often easier for young people in distress to confide in their friends than in family members or health professionals. Show the person that you care in any way that seems appropriate, such as giving them a hug or telling them what a good friend they are or persuading them to seek outside help. But remember that you are not responsible for their distress, and you will probably be less useful if you get drawn in too far. If things seem to be getting out of hand, ask for advice and support on how to manage. You can always ring a helpline anonymously if your friend has sworn you to secrecy.

'Just knowing you could pick up the phone and someone would be on the other end ... They might not understand, just listen to you.'

9 Be practical
A healthy lifestyle will give the young person more energy to cope with their problems. You can encourage them to eat balanced meals and to take regular exercise. Relaxation exercises may be helpful if they feel tense or have difficulty sleeping. If they are spending a great deal of time at home, try and persuade them to follow a routine of simple, undemanding activities such going out to the shops or making a cup of tea. This can help build their confidence and leaves less time for them to brood.

10 Help yourself
If you are a parent or otherwise closely involved with a young person with mental health problems, you are likely to be under a great deal of strain. Get help and support for yourself. See your GP and talk to other helpful professionals or voluntary organisations. Young Minds’ parent information line is a good starting point. It is important to try and stay calm, however worried and upset you feel, when dealing with the young person; otherwise their tension and anxiety will escalate. The young person cannot deal with your worries as well as their own.