News | Published March 4, 2013 | Written by Tina Kephart, RN-BC, unit nurse manager, behavioral health unit

Helping a loved one with a mental illness

The topic of mental illness has been heavily covered in the news and within personal conversations after shootings have plagued the nation.

Most people don’t believe that mental illness will actually affect them – thinking that it is a rare disorder that will happen to someone else; however, according to Mental Health America, approximately 54 million Americans suffer from some form of mental disorder each year. A mental illness can range from mild to severe disturbances and can include disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and anxiety.

Treating a mental illness can be difficult for an entire family, including spouses, parents, siblings, friends and relatives, which is why working as a support team can make the challenge much easier. 

Currently, there is much discussion by experts who state that there are problems with the U.S. mental health system that prevent many children with a mental illness from receiving effective treatment that could prevent tragic consequences later in life. To help ensure a loved one with a mental illness is getting the help they need, follow these tips: 

  • Understand: First, it’s crucial to recognize the symptoms of a mental illness. The symptoms of a mental illness can vary, depending on the particular disorder, but some of the typical signs are:
  • Confused thinking
  • Extreme mood changes
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities
  • Significant tiredness and problems thinking
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Excessive anger, hostility or violence

If you feel that a loved one is expressing the signs of a mental illness, support them in getting the help they need. If they are diagnosed with a mental illness, the next step is understanding their diagnosis. Local mental health associations and books from experts can be great resources to you.

  • Be open: Communicate openly with your loved one to help them comprehend and treat their illness and to help you recognize what they are experiencing. And remember to listen to them.
  • Get them help: Making sure your loved one is seeking treatment and actively following the treatment plan are vital to their health. You should also support your loved one with their treatment. With HIPAA laws and other confidentiality obstacles, it can complicate your ability to work with your loved one’s treatment team, but ask. Let them know that you would like to be a part of the treatment process so you can better assist your loved one.
  • Help yourself: You need to help yourself too! Dealing with a loved one’s mental illness diagnosis and treatment can bring about a range of feelings including stress, sadness, frustration, anger and guilt. Seek the help of a therapist who can help you deal with all of your feelings. Also, support groups for family members of those experiencing mental illness can be very beneficial in talking through each other’s experiences, learning from others and remembering you are not alone.

For more information on mental illness, visit or call Mount Nittany Medical Center’s behavioral health services at 814.234.6177. If you are in crisis, call 1.800.643.5432. The Can Help crisis line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.