Tips For How To Help A Person With Mental Illness

Because millions of people in the U.S. live with a mental health condition, you likely encounter people with a mental illness in your family or in your daily life. However, if you are unsure of how best to approach someone who may be struggling, these tips may help.

Suggestions on how you may approach someone living with a mental health condition:

  • Talk to them in a space that is comfortable, where you will not likely be interrupted and where there are likely minimal distractions.
  • Ease into the conversation, gradually. It may be that the person is not in a place to talk, and that is OK. Greeting them and extending gentle kindness can go a long way. Sometimes less is more.
  • Be sure to speak in a relaxed and calm manner.
  • Communicate in a straightforward manner and stick to one topic at a time.
  • Be respectful, compassionate, and empathetic to their feelings by engaging in reflective listening, such as “I hear that you are having a bad day today. Yes, some days are certainly more challenging than others. I understand.”
  • Instead of directing the conversation at them with ‘you’ statements, use ‘I’ statements.
  • Be a good listener, be responsive and make eye contact with a caring approach.
  • Ask them appropriate questions and avoid prying.
  • Give them the opportunity to talk and open up but don’t press.
  • Share some easy insights as a way of encouraging easy conversation, such as comments about the weather, the community or other.
  • Reduce any defensiveness by sharing your feelings and looking for common ground.
  • Speak at a level appropriate to their age and development level. Keep in mind that mental illness has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence.
  • Be aware of a person becoming upset or confused by your conversation with them.
  • Show respect and understanding for how they describe and interpret their symptoms.
  • Genuinely express your concern.
  • Offer your support and connect them to help if you feel that they need it. Ask, “How can I help?” if appropriate, or even, “Can I pray with you now?” if appropriate.
  • Give the person hope for recovery, offer encouragement and prayers.

Things to Avoid Saying:

  • “Just pray about it.”
  • “You just need to change your attitude.”
  • “Stop harping on the negative, you should just start living.”
  • “Everyone feels that way sometimes.”
  • “You have the same illness as my (whoever).”
  • “Yes, we all feel a little crazy now and then.”

Things to Avoid Doing:

  • Criticizing blaming or raising your voice at them.
  • Talking too much, too rapidly, too loudly. Silence and pauses are ok.
  • Showing any form of hostility towards them.
  • Assuming things about them or their situation.
  • Being sarcastic or making jokes about their condition.
  • Patronizing them or saying anything condescending. 


“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

~ Martin Luther King Jr.

Supporting Individuals When They are Distressed

By Diane T. Goyette, M.A.    The National Catholic Partnership on Disability

Some individuals are “sensitive,” “out of sync” or “explosive” – all words used to describe young people who are easily overwhelmed. These children especially benefit from loving support when they are distressed. As a parent of such a child and a child development specialist, I like to learn how to help my child and others like her. I hope you find what I have learned helpful when supporting young people who have exhibit challenging behaviors.

Below is an emotional support model that I developed based on brain research and advice from experts. I discovered three things that individuals need from adults, especially in moments of distress. These are the three “C”s in my framework:

The first “C” – Connection

“It’s not enough to love the children. It is necessary that they are aware that they are loved.”
– St. John Bosco

Children need to feel loved the most when they are acting in non-loving ways. The child having a tantrum or meltdown – or even lashing out at others is really telling us, “I can’t handle this emotion or situation alone.” 

Think of challenging behaviors as an opportunity to connect with a child on an emotional level. When an individual is upset, remain present. Separation can escalate anxiety and fear. In a gentle and soothing voice, reassure the person that you love them no matter what. 

Here’s a helpful poem to help adults connect with a distressed child. The poem is an adaptation of the song in Robert Munch’s wonderful 1995 book, Love You Forever:

I’ll love you forever

I’ll like you for always

As long as you need me

Your helper I’ll be

The second “C” – Calming

To help calm another, we must first calm ourselves. For me, this is the hardest part!  Since I often lose patience when my child misbehaves, I call on God for help. I composed a “centering prayer” that helps me regain my composure. To feel the strength of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I take three slow, deep breaths and I pray:

Safe in the Spirit

Beloved by God

I can do all things through Christ.

This prayer is adapted from a technique I learned from Dr. Becky Bailey, founder of Conscious Discipline®. She recommends we give our brain cues to calm the fight, flight or freeze response so that we can think clearly. “I am safe, I am loved, I can handle this,” are words she has used.

Once we are calm, we can then use relaxation strategies with others. Breathe deeply, talk positively, notice what is happening in the person’s body. Use techniques that work best to calm that unique individual, especially when they are young. Try hugging, rocking, singing, blowing bubbles, or reducing sound or light levels. Talk less, breathe more!

The third “C” – Compassion

If we believe children are doing the best they can under the circumstances, it is easier to give them empathy and compassion. As Dr. Ross Greene tells us in his Collaborative & Proactive Solutions® (CPS) model of care, “Kids do well if they can.”

We can give distressed individuals empathy by using reflective listening. If a person is acting out physically, notice their facial expression or body movements. Vocalize the changes in their body during the fight, flight or freeze response: “Your face is red, your fists are clenched, and your breathing is really fast.” 

If the person is crying, name-calling or yelling, communicate what you think they are feeling. Take your best guess and do not be afraid to use different words to accurately label the feeling. Young people can begin to learn the difference between contentment and excitement, frustration, and exasperation, worry and fear. 

If the person can communicate what is bothering them, empathize with what they are saying: “It’s hard when things don’t go your way.”

After giving empathy, show compassion by trying to ease the individual’s discomfort. State, “I’m here to help.” The goal is to help them work through an uncomfortable feeling. The is not the same thing as giving in to specific wants; you can still maintain expectations (the person still must clean up, or come inside, or meet any other expectation that triggered the behavior).

Attentive support can help a distressed person become emotionally strong. As we connect, help them calm and offer compassion, we demonstrate that they are loved unconditionally by us and by God.

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The content contained in this post and on this site are the opinions of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability. © The National Catholic Partnership on Disability 2020