Mental illness affects around 20% of Australians every year as well as the families and friends of people affected. Many forms of mental illness first appear when the person is in their late teens or early twenties. Whether it is depression, anxiety or a less common condition such as or Schizophrenia, the first episode is likely to occur when the person is still living with their family.

Mental illness often has a ripple effect on families, creating tension, uncertainty and often big changes in how people live their lives. Different family members are likely to be affected in different ways. Families may also take on the role of day-to-day care. This often happens with little training or support or acknowledgment of their own needs and mental health. When families are accepted as partners in care and do receive training and support, there is strong evidence that this leads to better outcomes for everyone involved.

Sometimes families are not listened to by health professionals. Patient confidentiality may be given as a reason for this yet families are often the main support for people affected by mental illness, and have a right to be treated as partners in care. They need information about the illness and treatment and about training and support to help themselves as well as the person who is ill.

Developing a practical, positive attitude is always a good place to start. This means coming to terms with the fact that someone you care for has a mental illness and that this is likely to have a serious emotional impact on you as well as them. There may be anger at this happening in your family, confusion or a sense of loss and grief at how the person has been changed by their illness. It’s important to acknowledge and talk about these feelings.

Develop a sense of balance between:

    1. acknowledging the effects of the illness on the person and hopes for recovery2.
    2. wanting to do things to help the person and encouraging them to be independent
    3. showing you care and not being over-involved
    4. giving the person your time and having time for yourself and other family members too
    5. encouraging the person to do things and not being unrealistic and demanding.

Also learning as much as you can about the illness and its treatment, and considering what you can reasonably do to support the person. Discuss this with other family members and the treating health professionals. If there is a type of care you cannot provide, then discuss with the health professional what arrangements can be made to provide it in some other way.

Some suggestions:

    • Talk things over with the person affected and other family members. Talk about how you feel and encourage others to do the same. Try to ensure everyone has the same understanding and position.


    • Find out about any training for family carers of people with a mental illness you can attend, and consider joining a support group to meet others in your position.


    • Encourage the person with a mental illness to be involved as much as possible in looking after themselves, and to get out socially and do things in their local community as much as is practical.


    • Consider the person as a whole – remember that they have the same range of personal, emotional and sexual needs as anyone else. Is their physical health being looked after by a GP? Are alcohol or drugs a problem which needs attention?


    • If there are suicidal thoughts, self-harm or aggression towards others, take these seriously and discuss with a health professional. Prepare a plan together for what to do if someone becomes unwell again. Always have crisis numbers handy.


    • Plan ahead for when you are unable to provide care. Talk about this with the person and health professionals, and consider what legal and financial steps may be needed to ensure care continues.

For further advice see: