When someone you care about experiences mental health issues, it can be difficult to know how to help and how to adapt to changes in your own life and relationships. Families, friends and carers often come to this experience with little prior knowledge about mental illness, mental health and recovery. Information often focuses on clinical symptoms and treatment, rather than recovery, relationships and wellbeing for all. The fear that someone you care for may not recover can result in extreme worry, distress and feelings of hopelessness. Research shows, however, that people can and do recover, and that family, friends and carers can support this recovery in many ways.

There is no one definition of recovery but it has been described as: 

‘being able to create and live a meaningful and contributing life in a community of choice with or without the presence of mental health issues’. (A National Framework for Recovery Orientated Mental Health Services: Guide for Practitioners and Providers, 2013) 

Research (Leamy et al., 2011) has identified some of the most important factors that support recovery. These include feeling connected, having hope, exploring identity, creating meaning and being empowered. You can read more on recovery here.

As relationships with family and friends are often extremely important to people, they can have a great influence on someone’s recovery, both positively and sometimes negatively. Learning about mental health and recovery can make a real difference to both you as a family member, friend or carer, and your loved one.

Supporting the recovery of someone who experiences mental health issues:

Learn about mental health and recovery: look for information that is right for you. Use various sources, including research-based information and resources from people with their own lived experience, both carers and people affected by mental health issues.

Ask the person you care about how you can be helpful: they may or may not have the exact answers, but asking, rather than assuming, is important to their sense of control in their own life and in their relationships. You may think something is helpful but the person may feel otherwise. Other times you may be doing something helpful, but have no idea that this is the case.

Make connections with others: although it can be difficult to make a connection with others becoming isolated can impact negatively on you and your family’s wellbeing. If you can, seek out community networks where you feel welcome and included. This can support the person you care for to also make connections with others.

Stay hopeful: hearing from others with an experience of mental health and recovery can be helpful when you are feeling overwhelmed. Having hope in someone’s recovery, when they themselves are feeling hopeless, can be extremely helpful to them. 

Explore what is important and meaningful: this might include significant events in their past as well as new ways forward.  As part of their recovery journey, the person you care about may be reflecting on what living with mental health issues means to them and their sense of identity. Their focus may not necessarily be about going back to being the same person they were prior to their experience of mental health issues. Sometimes people find it more empowering to rebuild a different sense of self. This can impact on how you understand the person and your relationship with them.

Learn about advocacy: supporting people to advocate for themselves is an important part of recovery. You may need to take on an advocacy role for the person you care about. If so, it is important to ask them what role they want you to take, when, and how. It is also likely to change over time, depending on their circumstances. 

Be a source of encouragement: it can be challenging sometimes if you fear the person you care about may be vulnerable in situations such as working, studying or travel, but being empowered to take control of your own life, including taking risks like everyone else, is important to recovery. 

Look after yourself: this is central to recovery. Read more about self-care and wellbeing for families, friends and carers.

Family, carers and friends often need to support individuals to make decisions about treatment and to make sure health professionals understand these decisions. Healthtalk Australia has a helpful online resource featuring stories (in video, audio and text formats) from family members and carers about supported decision making.

If you need to talk, call our Helpline.

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Remember, you are not alone. Hear stories from people who have been there.

For more information, please contact Wellways on 1300 111 400.