Caring for a family member or loved one with mental illness

Word by one of our Clinical Psychologists Dr Elizabeth Knock

It can be hard to know where to turn, who to talk to and what to do, when trying to navigate caring for a loved one with a mental illness or someone experiencing mental health issues.

Add a whole raft of complicated emotions, and carers are often left feeling isolated and confused. You might not consider yourself a ‘carer’, but maybe you’re just trying to make sense of changes you’re seeing in a family member or friend.

It’s normal to struggle with conflicted thoughts and feelings as you try to do the best you can for someone you care about. Such as, sadness or feeling hurt following challenging interactions. Guilt, when you blame yourself for what you ‘didn’t do’, or ‘should have handled better’. And anger, which before long can become guilt again. The thing to remember is, these are really normal.

It may feel like your stresses are nothing compared to what your loved one is going through, but they take their toll. It’s important to remember that self-care is essential to have, so you can have the energy and capacity to continue caring for others. The better rested you are, the better your reasoning and responses will be.

As well as looking after yourself, there a few things to keep in mind that might make things easier.

  • Get as much information  as you can –understanding more about what someone is going through will remove some of the unknown’s and fear.
  • Know your limits –Be willing to ask for help and willing to hand over decisions to health professionals rather than carrying the weight yourself. Doing this can not only help protect your relationship with your loved one, but also reduce the impact these decisions have on your own emotional wellbeing.
  • Remember it is ok to maintain boundaries –people struggling with mental health will often benefit from stability, consistency, and knowing what to expect from you. Blurring boundaries may just reinforce behaviours that are unsustainable for you, and unhelpful for the person you’re caring for.
  • Instead of trying to guess… ask – Don’t be afraid to talk about difficult issues, avoidance usually only helps stressful issues grow larger. But open a dialogue, not a debate.
  • Avoid falling into the trap of being the ‘fixer’ and ‘saviour’ – No matter how much you love or care for someone, you can not ‘save them’, only support them.
  • Have realistic expectations – The recovery process is not a straight line nor does it happen at a set speed.
  • Access support groups for family members and carers – Often hearing others stories can be very powerful
  • If possible and appropriate, be clear with your loved one and any professionals involved about what information they are happy to have shared with you and what they want to remain confidential


Accessing counselling for yourself can be helpful and is very appropriate and normal. A psychologist can work with you to manage your own symptoms of stress and a safe space to deal with the emotions rising from challenging circumstances. They can also provide an essential sounding block, providing clarity, objectivity, education and possible solutions not easily seen while you’re feeling ‘stuck’ in the situation.

Remember, the healthier you are, the better equipped you will be to handle demanding situations.

If you are struggling with the challenges of caring for someone with mental illness, speak to your GP or book in with one of our Clinical Psychologists here!


Here are some links with further information

Mental Health Carers NSW