When one family member struggles with a mental health-related challenge, the whole family is impacted. The good news is that family can provide significant support when a loved one is struggling.

Signs a Family Member May Be Struggling with Mental Health

There isn’t one sign that will indicate someone you love is struggling with their mental health. What you do know about your family member is their baseline behavior: How do they normally act? How do they normally look in terms of appearance? What do they normally talk about? While a shift in these baseline behaviors may not mean your loved one is definitely struggling with a mental health-related challenge, it is a good opportunity to check in on them.

Here are some things to look for:

  • Behaviors: Being late, leaving early, being disengaged or argumentative, withdrawing from social events, risk taking.
  • Appearance: Looking exhausted, disheveled, or unkept.
  • Feelings: Excessive worrying, sad, argumentative, irritated, no longer engaged in hobbies/interests.
  • Thoughts: Trouble focusing, indecision, self-blame or criticism.

Types of Support

There are a few different types of support you can offer someone.

  • Emotional support: Expressing empathy and caring, reassuring and validating their feelings. (e.g., “I care about you, and I’m here for you. Tell me more about how you’re feeling.”)
  • Tangible/instrumental support: Providing direct aid or services. (e.g., “Can I drop off dinner for you one night next week?”)
  • Informational support: Providing relevant information or advice to help your family member make decisions and problem solve. (e.g., “While I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, I went through something similar last year. Can I share with you what helped me?”)
  • Appraisal support: Highlighting someone’s strengths to raise their self-esteem and make them feel better equipped to cope. (e.g., “You are incredibly resilient, and I know you’ll get through this in time.”)

In order to provide effective support, it’s important to ask your loved one what type of support they want because it might be different than what you think they want or what you’d want if you were in the same situation. They might not know what type of support they need, and that’s okay. Provide them an example of support types to help clarify (e.g., “Do you want me to help you look for a therapist? Or I can drive you to your appointment?”)

How to Have a Conversation About Mental Health with a Loved One

Before the Conversation

Checking in on a loved one is an important conversation, so you want to make sure you’re prepared. Check in with yourself first: Do you have the time and energy for the conversation? Remember that this a deeply personal issue for your family member. You’re asking them to be vulnerable. If you have somewhere else to be or if you’re distracted, your concern will not come across as genuine. They likely will not open up to you, and it may be harder to get them to open up to you or anyone else in the future.

Also make sure you know what types of resources are available (e.g., 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, Suicide Prevention Resources, Find a Therapist, find a treatment facility, Youturn Health coaching and online learning platform). You don’t have to be an expert in these resources, but know what’s available, and be willing to walk your loved one through using them to get help.

And finally make sure to consider where to have this conversation. It should be somewhere you can talk privately and somewhere they feel safe.

During the Conversation

Know that you don’t have to have the answers. You’re not a therapist, you’re not there to diagnose or explain why they feel the way they do. You are there to express care and support. Just be present and listen to them. Recognize (e.g., “It sounds like you’re feeling…”) and validate (e.g., “I can totally understand why that would be difficult.”) their feelings. Tell them you want to talk to them because you care about them.

Here a few questions you may want to ask during your check-in:

  1. Who do you feel comfortable talking to about this? It may not be you, and that’s okay.
  2. How can I support you? Be prepared to provide examples of the types of social support you can provide.
  3. Can I share some possible options for support with you?

They may not want to talk, and they may not want support. Be patient and ask open-ended questions. Don’t force them to talk to you, but ask if you can follow up with them in a few days. If you say you’re going to follow up, do it.

Don’t Forget to Take Care of Yourself

Caregiver burnout is real. Providing support to a loved one struggling with a mental health-related challenge on top of a full-time job and other family/life obligations will wear you down. Make sure to practice self-care so you can build resilience. Find your own support (e.g., support groups or peer coaching), make personal wellness goals, or build a plan to make sure you have a chance to take care of your own needs and recharge.

For more information, please check out our resource pages on Substance Misuse, Suicide Prevention, Grief and Trauma, and Stress Management. If you’re a Youturn Health member, please log in to your account and check out our courses on Stress Management, Burnout and Mindfulness, Enhancing Your Communication, and Navigating Mental Health-Related Challenges