Mental illnesses are disorders that affect a person’s mood, thoughts or behaviors. Serious mental illnesses include a variety of diseases including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and delusional. Although they can be scary, it is important to remember that these disorders are treatable. Individuals diagnosed with these diseases can live very full, rewarding lives, especially if they seek treatment as needed.


Being diagnosed with a serious mental illness can be a shock — both for the person diagnosed and for his or her family and friends. On the other hand, finally obtaining a diagnosis and treatment plan can sometimes help relieve stress in the family and start moving recovery forward. Family members can be an invaluable resource for individuals dealing with serious mental illnesses. By learning more about the illness, you can support your loved one through diagnosis and beyond.


While symptoms of serious mental illnesses vary, the following signs are among the more common:


  • Social withdrawal.
  • Difficulty functioning at school or work.
  • Problems with memory and thinking.
  • Feeling disconnected from reality.
  • Changes in sleeping, eating and hygiene habits.
  • Alcohol or drug abuse.
  • Extreme mood changes.
  • Thoughts of suicide.


Encourage your loved one to talk to a trusted health care provider. If he or she is hesitant to see a mental health specialist such as a psychologist, suggest a visit to a general physician. Offer to accompany them to the appointment if they’d like.


If you feel your loved one is in danger of harming himself or herself, or harming someone else, that’s an emergency. Don’t hesitate to call 911. If possible, ask for an officer trained in crisis intervention — many communities have officers on staff who are trained to diffuse a mental health crisis in the best possible way.


It is extremely normal to experience a flurry of emotions when a loved one is diagnosed with a serious mental illness.  Guilt, shame, disbelief, fear, anger and grief are all common reactions.  Acceptance with the diagnosis can take time, both for the individual who is diagnosed, and for you and other family members.

One of the most important things you can do to support a family member with a serious mental illness is to educate yourself.  The more you learn about what to expect, the easier it will be to provide the right kind of support and assistance.  Familiarize yourself with the symptoms of the disease so that you can recognize when your family member might be showing signs that his or her illness is not well controlled.


Medications can be helpful for controlling symptoms of many serious, mental illnesses.  They can take a while to become effective sometimes, and medication alone is often not enough to keep these diseases in check.  Encourage your loved one to take advantage of other resources, such as peer support groups and individual and/or group psychotherapy.


When your loved one is living with a mental illness remember that they still have an identity and a voice.  Encourage them to have open and honest conversations.  Ask what they are feeling, what they are struggling with and what they would like from you.  Work together to set up realistic expectations and plan the steps for meeting those expectations.


Recognize and praise your loved one’s strengths and progress.  Compared to offering positive support, repeatedly prompting or nagging people with serious mental illnesses to make behavior changes actually can result in worse outcomes.


One great resource to have is:

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