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  • Henriette Johnsen

How to care when mental illness hits

Caring for and supporting someone with a mental illness can be challenging. Many people feel they haven’t got the knowledge and as such, don’t know what to say and how to act around a loved one suffering with either depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts. Nor do they know how to look after themselves; and if they do, they often lose sight of this.

Depending on your relationship with the sufferer, you might be involved in their illness in varying degrees. Truth of the matter is that when someone suffers from a mental illness, the people closest to them also suffer. Therefore, knowing how to care for the sufferer as well as yourself is key to the future wellbeing of everyone.

This blogpost suggesting some advice of how to care for someone with a mental illness as well as how to look after yourself consists of three parts:

1. How to support someone with depression or anxiety.

2. What to do if you fear they might be suicidal.

3. How take care of yourself to better enabling yourself to support others.

1. How to support someone with depression or anxiety


  • Seek knowledge about the illness in question. Being well-informed about symptoms and different phases of the illness can help you better understand what the sufferer goes through and why they may react in ways unlike their character. It may also help you be more empathic in emotionally challenging situations.

Information can be found in the following ways:

  • From talking to the sufferer.

  • If the sufferer allows you, you can join in on an appointment with the sufferer’s GP, psychologist or therapist.

  • There may be an information event from Depressionsforeningen (depression) or Angstforeningen (anxiety) in your local area.

  • From your own observations.

  • From support groups.

  • From literature. e.g. “Hope with depression” and “Hope with anxiety” by Lynn Crilly.


  • Make sure they have the appropriate professional help


  • When suffering from depression or anxiety, everyday tasks can seem overwhelming as can receiving people’s well-meant support. Rather than imposing something on them such as a daily telephone call, ask the sufferer how you best support them. If they don’t know, work out something together.


  • Be mindful that while some people find it helpful to talk about their illness, others would rather not. If in doubt, gently ask them what they prefer.


  • Some sufferers have trouble with attention, overview and memory; and some find longer conversations difficult; if so, try to keep your messages short and concise. Be careful around the use of humour and irony. If the sufferer has difficulties with remembering, repeating or writing important things down may be helpful.


  • For some, everyday tasks like showering, cooking, cleaning etc. can be hugely demanding. Support the sufferer in maintaining hope that things will improve and encourage them to remain active at whatever pace, they feel comfortable with. Some tasks, you may have to take over completely, whilst others can be shared between you and the sufferer. Remember that what a sufferer can do one day may have changed the next. Cautiously celebrate progress and remember to check in with the sufferer how they feel and how much support they need on a given day.


  • Travelling to health appointments can feel overwhelming, and if online consultation is not possible, it may be helpful for the sufferer to be accompanied to their health appointments.


  • Be mindful that the sufferer might not have as much energy for social activities as usual.


  • Also be mindful, that suffering from a mental illness in a foreign country, may add negativity around being abroad simply because the sufferer is mentally challenged and may struggle to see the positive in anything. Things are rarely done in the same way as back home, and when you are navigating from a somewhat depleted and negative place, everything becomes clouded and feels like an up-hill-struggle. Feelings of homesickness may also find new breeding ground in the sufferer.

2. What to do if you fear someone close to you might be suicidal


  • As a relative, spouse, close friend or adult child of a sufferer, it’s important to know if the sufferer has thoughts or plans of suicide. And if so, when there’s an increased risk of them acting on these.

  • Even if talking about suicide can be uncomfortable, these thoughts can be part of a mental illness. If you are concerned that someone might be suicidal, gently tell them that you are concerned and ask them directly if they have thoughts around suicide. Being direct doesn’t add to the risk of them committing suicide: Most people attempting to take their own lives, don’t want to die. If the answer is yes, they are thinking of suicide, gently enquire why they feel they don’t want to live. It may often seem too hopeless and difficult for them to continue living or they will reject talking about their thoughts or feelings. Perhaps you can help the person see other solutions without being judgemental.

  • It’s important not to commit to carrying this information alone, but to involve others close to the sufferer. Before having the conversation, have to hand the contact information of their GP, the doctor on duty call if outside hours, psychiatric emergency room or Livslinjen.

  • If acute, don’t leave the sufferer alone, but stay with them till they have appropriate help.

  • Having such conversation with a loved one can be emotionally challenging; watching this online course can help you prepare for the conversation

3. How to support yourself whilst supporting someone suffering from a mental illness

When caring for someone with a mental illness, people often find themselves in a dilemma between wanting to help and support the sufferer and looking after themselves. As mentioned above, when someone suffers from a mental illness, it effects people around them. Therefore, self-care becomes key to the well-being and recovery of everyone in the circle of people closest to the person fallen ill.

Many experience guilt for being alright and/or for having a joyful life whilst their loved one is going through emotional hardship. It can be difficult to put boundaries in place and look after yourself. Know that it’s perfectly normal to feel like this and that most people caring for someone with a mental illness most likely will feel the same pressure and inner conflicts.

It can be difficult to self-care when life may feel as if you are fire-fighting left, right and center; and navigating through the advice can be confusing. At such times, it can be helpful to take advice and support from a mental health professional or friends and relatives. Always remember though, that you know best what works for you; and as it's likely you will have conflicting advice, don’t just do what other people tell you to, but carefully consider how a suggestion would work for you and your current life situation before implementing it.

It’s a worn-out cliché that you need to apply the oxygen mask to yourself before helping others and it may seem somewhat provocative if people keep reminding you of this advice. Nonetheless, it’s true: You cannot be of much help and support to others, if you don’t practise self-care and take your own needs seriously. Remember that each one is responsible for themselves and that you will be much more able to support someone if you are well supported yourself. And that is your responsibility.

Seek knowledge, talk with others about your feelings, ask for help and keep doing what you find joyful in life. It may not seem apparent in the situation but looking after yourself will enable to sufferer to better take support from you: Your support will be given from a place of surplus rather than a depleted one.



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