Mental health can change you as much as it changes those around you. And since it can be such a major change, having supporters, such as friends and family, can be a great source of comfort and warmth in times of need. This is especially true for those recovering from, or coping with, mental illness [1]. Having a strong and supportive social network protects those with mental illness from self-stigma – the process of applying the negative stereotypes of mental illness to themselves [2]. More importantly, however, is for the individual diagnosed with a mental illness to know that they are not responsible for the reactions of others. In these situations, there are many online and community resources that can help you out. But let’s start from the beginning. Outlined below are some common concerns, from both sides of a relationship involving mental health, regarding the best ways to maintain and maybe strengthen close relationships.

“I have a mental illness.”

Should I tell them about my mental illness? How?

It can be difficult to tell others about your mental health problem, but it might be beneficial for you to have someone to talk to about it. You do not have to tell everyone; instead start with the most supportive person you know [3]. Next, pacing is key. Give them a chance to take in the news, bit by bit, especially if they are not very familiar with mental health problems. Finally, be prepared for their reaction. They may range from surprise to overwhelmed – not everyone’s reaction will be the same. And if someone doesn’t react as you’d expect, don’t take it personally, and try to have someone to talk to afterwards.

What are other sources of support?

If you feel like you are relying too heavily, or putting too much strain, on your relationships, there are always other sources of support. It might be a good idea to look into peer-support groups. These groups create supportive relationships between those with common or similar mental health problems and experiences [4].

How might my relationships change?

In some cases, you might feel like you have become closer, and this is most likely the case with those who were your most supportive friends or family members beforehand. In others cases, relationships may just fade away [2]. It is important to know that even normal relationships fade away. Humans go through a “weeding” process of their friends as they age, maintaining only those relationships most dear to them [5]. If your mental illness is the sole purpose for an abruptly ended friendship, then consider that you are starting this pruning process a bit earlier, and know that not all relationships will be the same.

“My ________ has a mental illness.”

How should I respond to hearing about his/her mental illness?

Make sure to let her/him know that you will be supportive, in spite of their mental health problem [2]. If they are comfortable with it, ask questions and try to learn more about the problem and ways in which you could help. Listen to what they have to say, and try not to make any promises that you cannot keep.

How do I support him/her and to what extent?

Aim for a balanced relationship. Otherwise, you may be exceeding your limits or overstepping boundaries. In the end, all they need is your support, not another mental health professional. That being said, there are many ways you can support them: Listen and talk to them when they need it, and invite them out to get them involved in the community.

Try to find out more about the mental illness from external resources and understand that although he/her may have a mental illness, symptoms will come and go [6]. Another way you can offer support is by giving practical help, like washing dishes or to getting groceries. If you find that he/she is withdrawing from you, give your friend or family member space to work it out and assure the person that you are still there when they want to get back in touch.

How can I cope?

If you are finding it hard to cope, you might want to look into support groups where friends and family members of those with mental illness get together to talk. Otherwise, it might be helpful to chat realistically about the types and level of support you can give [2]. Relationships are an important source of encouragement and guidance, and can have a huge impact on mental health. However, they are not easy to handle. If you feel like you would like to learn more about relationships and mental health or would like to seek more advice, the references cited throughout this article would be a great place to start.

Relationships in the midst of mental illness.

Having a mental illness shouldn’t keep you from enjoying fulfilling relationships of all kinds, including close friendships, familial bonds, romantic relationships, and even marriage.

In every relationship, despite the nature of it, each partner brings many things, both strengths and limitations. Living with a mental illness may be your particular challenge. You are wise to be concerned in advance about how your mental illness will affect your relationships, but it is important to realize that hard times are a part of all relationships. And partners who care for each other can grow from facing difficulty.

Mental illness is fairly common. In reality, there are many people with mental health conditions in loving and nurturing relationships. Despite the difficulties that can occur in a relationship when one or both individuals have a mental illness, relationships can thrive when both individuals learn to openly communicate and compromise.

By: Serena Soleimani
Edited by: Alisia Bonnick
Image by: Adley Lobo



[1] Impact of Mental Illness on the Family. (2008). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from

[2] Friendship and Mental Health. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from

[3] Tracy, N. (2011, January 20). Talking to Others About Your Mental Illness. Retrieved November 30, 2014, from

[4] Sunderland, Kim, Mishkin, Wendy, Peer Leadership Group, Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2013). Guidelines for the Practice and Training of Peer Support. Calgary, AB: Mental Health Commission of Canada. Retrieved December 1, 2014 from:

[5] Carstensen, L. L., Isaacowitz, D. M., & Charles, S. T. (1999). Taking time seriously: A theory of socioemotional selectivity. American Psychologist, 54, 165-181.

[6] Mental illness – family and friends – Better Health Channel. (2014, May 9). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from

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