If you’re a friend or family member of someone in recovery from mental illness or addiction, you may want to know what you can do to support your loved one. You want to be helpful and supportive, but you may feel at a loss as to what specific things you can do.
Here are a dozen different options to consider. Each individual’s recovery journey will be different, so some of these suggestions will be more helpful than others. Although these ideas come from my work with people with mental illness and addiction, most should work equally well for other issues, such as recovery related to grief, loss, or illness.
1. Say you want to help.
Sometimes a person in recovery will ask you directly for help. If so, that’s great. But often they may be afraid or embarrassed to ask for assistance. If that’s the case, go ahead and make the first move. Make a clear statement that you want to help. Keep it simple; just say, “I want to tell you I’m here to help in any way I can.”
2. Discuss how you can help.
After you have made it clear you want to help and the person is receptive, consider specific ways you can provide assistance. Talk with them about their needs and expectations. “Help” can mean many different things, from providing a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on to specific tasks, such as giving reminders to take medication or providing a ride to the doctor. Come to an agreement about your role and the types of things you both agree are reasonable.
3. Be available.
Keep in contact on a regular basis. It’s usually helpful to set a schedule for how often you will check in by phone or in person. If you have agreed to be available 24/7, follow through on that promise. It’s also helpful to have a back-up plan to contact another person in case you aren’t able to respond immediately.
4. Learn more about recovery.
As with most worthwhile efforts, you will be more effective if you are better informed. Seek out reputable mental health resources to learn more about the individual’s specific issues and ways to promote recovery.
5. Give honest feedback.
Ask for permission to offer honest feedback. Once this approval is given, don’t be afraid to offer feedback regularly. Keep it positive by providing frequent encouragement and abundant praise for progress toward a specific goal. Offer constructive and supportive comments and suggestions about things that aren’t going as well to help the person get back on track.
6. Encourage responsibility.
Remember that you can’t recover for someone else. While you can offer support, education, and advice, they retain the primary responsibility for their own recovery and for working toward their identified goals. It’s sometimes a delicate balance, but don’t rescue or enable the person by taking on things they should be handling for themselves. Keep offering gentle reminders that they (and not you) are ultimately in charge of their life.
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7. Facilitate other supports.
A good recovery plan includes multiple supports, so you shouldn’t be the only one helping the person. They may have a therapist and/or prescriber, a support group, and access to peer support services, which involves working with others also in recovery. Help the person stay connected with all of these vital members of their support team. It can often be beneficial to communicate with these other supporters, but only if you are explicitly permitted to do so by the person you are assisting.
8. Promote healthy choices.
Recovery should have a holistic focus, which includes nourishment of the mind, body, and spirit. To this end, help the person remember to make healthy lifestyle choices. These typically include a balanced diet, physical activity, adequate sleep, social interactions, regular health screenings, involvement in a faith community, and participation in pleasant activities.
9. Focus on the person, not the illness.
In the early stages of recovery, the person’s illness can be overwhelming, making it hard for them to remember all of their other unique personal strengths. As recovery progresses, it’s important to help them reclaim the talents, hobbies, interests, goals, and dreams they may have had to set aside due to their illness. Eventually, the illness should be seen as only one part of who they are, and not what defines them as a person.
10. Don’t give up.
The journey of recovery can be long, challenging, fraught with many setbacks, and often discouraging. This can be exhausting for both you and the person in recovery. It’s critical to not give up. Keep moving forward slowly, and think of the road to recovery as a long-distance marathon and not a 100-meter sprint. As we learned from the fable of the tortoise and the hare, “slow and steady wins the race.”
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11. Seek professional help when needed.
You don’t have to be a trained mental health professional to help someone in recovery. On the other hand, there are times when the aid of trained professionals is absolutely necessary. These situations primarily include immediate risk of harm to self or others, or times when the person is no longer able to adequately take care of their own basic needs for survival. In these cases, don’t hesitate to take action to see that the person is promptly evaluated by a professional. You may literally save a life.
12. Take care of yourself.
You can’t be a fully effective helper to someone else if you aren’t taking care of yourself first. “Caregiver stress” is the well-documented effect of being overwhelmed by the long-term stress associated with caring for another person. Arrange for breaks from extended caregiving responsibilities so you can recharge your own batteries. Consider enlisting additional support, such as home health services or similar resources, if the demands exceed your capabilities.