How to support parents living with mental illness

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource has been developed to help family and friends to understand what is helpful (and what is not) when supporting parents living with mental illness. It has been developed with the guidance of family members with lived experience, practitioners and researchers.

Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. For the purposes of easy reading, the term ‘parent’ encompasses the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.

Mental health difficulties can not only be distressing for the person who’s experiencing them, but also for the person’s family and friends. Knowing how to care for someone with a mental illness (and one another) can help support their recovery. This resource aims to assist family and friends’ understanding of what is helpful, and what is not, when supporting parents living with mental illness.

The first step is to ask, ‘What can I do to help?’ Although you may have the best intentions it is important not to assume what your loved one and their family need. When someone is experiencing mental health difficulties it will be a challenging time for everyone involved, but particularly their immediate family. You could start by bringing them a meal or offering to take any children to the park or a movie. This will give the family some breathing space and let the person you care for know that you are there for them.

Children may need extra support when their parent or caregiver is experiencing mental health difficulties. Check out our resource Supporting children of parents living with mental illness for more information.

Tread gently

When someone you care for has a mental illness it can be difficult to make sense of what is happening for them. You may find it challenging to understand what they are going through but it’s important not to criticise, blame or judge them. Sometimes people can behave in ways that seem scary or overwhelming. They might: have emotional outbursts, problems sleeping or appetite changes; become quiet or withdrawn or engage in substance abuse.1 These symptoms can be confronting and hard to understand, and you might feel an urge to withdraw from the person experiencing mental health difficulties.

Try to remember that:

  • with treatment the symptoms of mental illness can be managed just like those of a physical illness
  • recovery looks different for everyone
  • your loved one is more than just their mental illness.

Your role is to try to be understanding and to offer your support.

‘The behaviour that you’re seeing is from your loved one’s illness and not from your loved one. Try not to judge but always be understanding.’

– Stuart, father of five, grandfather of four, Victoria

Be supportive

Despite your best intentions, it’s important you don’t become over-involved or see it as your responsibility to make the person you care for better. Finding the right balance can be difficult but the following tips could help:

  • Offer reassurance. Letting your loved one know that you are there for them and that you want to support them will help. It might take time for them to talk about their experiences and accept help, but knowing that you’re there and want to understand can help make this step easier.
  • Don’t take over. People experiencing mental illness often talk about losing control over their lives and feeling powerless. Supporting your loved one to feel like they have some control over their life and can make their own choices, while involving them in family decision-making can help their recovery. There may be times, however, when your loved one is unwell, and you question their capacity to make decisions. This should be discussed with them sensitively, using empathy and the support of a health professional where appropriate.
  • Avoid criticism. Friends and family may think that their loved one is being ‘lazy’ or ‘moody’ when their behaviour changes are actually a symptom of mental health difficulties. Being overly critical may make symptoms worse and negatively impact on your relationship.
  • No one is to blame. Family and friends often directly blame and criticise themselves as well, believing that they are somehow responsible for causing mental illness or for not getting help soon enough. Remember, you are not to blame if your loved one has mental health difficulties – many factors combine to cause someone to experience mental illness.
  • Have realistic expectations. Remember that recovery from mental illness takes time and it is common for there to be a few setbacks along the way. Be patient with your loved one and help them feel hopeful. With the right treatment and support they can have a fulfilling and meaningful life.

Ways to provide support

Supporting parents living with mental illness can come in many forms. We asked people with lived experience of mental health difficulties what was most helpful to them and they provided the following recommendations:

  • Offering a meal or to take the children to the park is a valuable support. It can take the pressure off the partner as well as the person who is unwell.
  • Helping the family to keep any children’s routines as normal as possible. This might mean offering to drop off or pick up children for school and sporting commitments.
  • A text message saying ‘I love you and I am here’ is so valuable, particularly if they don’t feel up to having a full conversation.
  • Try not to take over. Support your loved one to fulfill their role in the family as it might help give them a sense of self-worth.
  • Offer to catch up in a playground so the kids can play while you have space to chat. Offer to accompany the person you care for to their appointment. They may or may not wish for you to attend the appointment but a chat on the way there and back can be a nice distraction.
  • A hug can be enough to provide reassurance when it is needed most.

The support of family and friends is an important ingredient of your loved one’s recovery from the mental illness they experience. By asking what will help them most, and listening, you can assist them through difficult times in a way that is meaningful for them.


  1. Healthdirect. (2021). Nine signs of mental health issues.

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