Just about everyone knows someone who is dealing with mental illness. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime —  one in five. And mental illness does not discriminate. It affects people of all ages, educational and income levels, and cultures. 

If you suspect that someone in your family, a friend, or a colleague suffers from mental illness, you can help.

Learn the signs and symptoms of mental illness

Friends and family are often the first to know that something is “not right” with someone close to them. You might notice changes in mood or behaviour, changes in how they manage (or stop managing) responsibilities, or changes in their own personal hygiene or self-care. There are lots of resources available online and through various community organizations that can provide important information. You can also ask your doctor for their guidance in helping you find the resources that you seek.

Getting an early diagnosis and help

That old saying of trying to “nip it in the bud” holds truth here. The longer mental illness has to permeate, the more routine the sickness becomes, and the harder it is to break the cycles. The sooner a person can find a treatment that works for them, and start taking steps to becoming well again, the better it is for them — and everyone who loves them.

Provide practical day-to-help AND also emotional help

Just being there, being understanding, being a good listener, can go far. You are not to blame for their mental illness, nor do you have to try and “fix” it for them. Care and emotional support go a long way in recovery, and can bring hope at a time when someone feels the most hopeless. Just be there.

Take care of yourself

Caring for someone else can be draining emotionally and physically. More than ever, don’t lose sight of your own needs. Because if you aren’t well, it’s harder to help someone else take steps in their own recovery. Strive for your own balance, and ways to recharge yourself. Do what you have to do to tend to yourself, and let yourself feel what you are feeling, too. Mental illness can be hard to understand, and it’s natural that the experience comes with mixed and sometimes complicated emotions. Know that your feelings are okay.

Reach out even if it's easier to withdraw

Mental illness often comes with fear and social stigma, and can lead to isolation – not only the person suffering, but also those close to them. At a time when it might be easier to withdraw, it’s even more important for them to stay connected. Find someone to talk to about the experience. Go for counselling if it is available. Seek out a support group where other people understand what you are going through. Coping with loved one's mental illness is a lot easier when you realize that you are not alone.

Take the time to laugh

Once your loved one is on the road to recovery, encourage them to be more engaged in life. Help them discover – or rediscover – things they enjoy doing. Natural environments can be rejuvenating, too, so spend some time in the outdoors. Have some fun, and a few good laughs. It is true that laughter is good medicine for many ailments, including mental illness. So take a large dose whenever you can. 

To witness one family's struggle with mental illness watch Being Greene on CBC Gem.

Also on CBC