Sometimes you can tell if a friend or relative is having a difficult time. But other times, you might not realise they’re experiencing problems with their mental health. If you think they’re struggling to cope, there are things you can do to help.
Mental health describes your emotional wellbeing – how you think, feel and react.
Getting older doesn’t mean your friend or relative’s mental health will always get worse, but changes in their life might affect how they feel. They may not develop a mental health problem but, if they do, it can go unnoticed.
What to look out for
Mental health problems can affect people in different ways. Each problem has different symptoms, but they can sometimes overlap. As a general guide, keep an eye out for:
- major life changes – have they had a recent experience that could trigger a mental health problem, like a diagnosis of a serious illness or a bereavement?
- physical health problems – are they getting more aches and pains, or feeling more tired or unwell than usual?
- changes in their environment – how does their home seem? For example, messy surroundings or a regularly empty fridge could be a sign they’re struggling
- changes in behaviour or mood – have they been acting differently lately? For example, are they avoiding people when they normally enjoy socialising?
Two common mental health problems for older people are depression and anxiety.
Signs of depression
Look out for signs that they aren’t taking care of themselves, such as:
- poor personal hygiene
- not taking care of their appearance
- empty fridges and cupboards
- seeming to feel down or hopeless
- seeming more tired or restless than usual
- not enjoying things like they used to
- isolating themselves or avoiding visitors.
See our Depression web page for more information.
Signs of anxiety
Look out for signs that they’re feeling uneasy or nervous, such as:
- seeming restless or jumpy
- finding it hard to concentrate
- seeming dizzy or sick
- trembling or sweating
- seeming tense or uptight
- getting irritable more than usual
- feeling depressed.
See our Anxiety web page for more information.
It's difficult to know exactly what someone else is feeling. Try to find out what might be troubling them and encourage them to talk to their GP.
How you can help them
If you think your older friend or relative is struggling with their mental health, there are some simple things you can do to help. You can’t force someone to seek help, but you can reassure them that there is help out there.
If they need urgent help
If you think someone is having suicidal feelings, they need help urgently. Without support, they could be at risk. Either you or they can speak to a GP, call NHS 111 or contact Samaritans.
|If you think they’re in immediate danger of harming themselves or someone else, call 999.|
Talk to them about how they feel
A good first step is talking to them and finding out how they’re feeling. If they’re not ready to talk, don’t force them – just let them know you’re there when they need you. If you do talk, try to:
- ask them open questions like 'how have you been feeling lately?' which prompts them to speak in their own words
- listen to what they say, without judging them – it can be hard to open up about difficult emotions
- reassure them that how they’re feeling is not their fault
- try not to dismiss their feelings or put pressure on them to ‘cheer up’. It’s not as simple as this
- ask how you can help and give them options, rather than telling them what they should do.
Read our Sensitive conversations section for more advice about approaching sensitive topics.
Help them take small steps
Feeling better can take time, so it’s important to be patient with your friend or relative. Support them to take positive steps, without putting pressure on them. You could try to:
- encourage them to talk to a GP, who can help diagnose the problem and suggest treatment options. You could offer to go with them, if they want you to
- encourage them to take care of their physical health by eating well, getting enough sleep and staying active
- offer practical help if they’re struggling to cope with daily tasks, like cooking them a meal or helping out around the house
- learn about their symptoms. You could help them research therapies, support groups and treatment options
- if they do get treatment, encourage them to stick with it or seek an alternative if it isn’t working for them.
Keep in touch
People with mental health problems can feel like they’re a burden, and others losing touch with them can reinforce that feeling. You could:
- call for a chat, send a nice message or visit them
- do things you normally would, so their problem isn’t the main focus of your relationship
- plan something nice to do – for example, take them on an outing or try a new activity together
- encourage them to think of ways they can increase their social connection – see our loneliness web page for ideas
- encourage them to keep doing things they enjoy, such as restarting a hobby or pursuing an interest.
With the right treatment, most people experiencing a mental health problem can either get better or learn how to manage it. But it’s important to let them go at their own pace and make their own decisions as much as possible.
If you're a carer
A mental health problem combined with other medical problems can be complicated. If you’re caring for someone:
- make sure they're taking all their medication and any other prescribed treatments, and looking after their physical health
- be patient and kind. It might take time for them to get help or start feeling better
- encourage them to talk about their feelings and seek help. Make sure any treatment they get for their mental health is part of a care plan that considers all their needs
- make sure you’re both getting the support you’re entitled to – call our Helpline to arrange a free benefits check, and for advice and information.
Carers UK has a forum for people to talk about caring for someone with mental health problems. You can also find out about the support available to help you in your caring role on our Support for carers web pages.
Take care of yourself
Looking after someone else can be stressful, especially if you’re feeling vulnerable yourself. You can only support your friend or relative if you’re feeling well enough, so make sure you're taking care of your own health as well.
There might be times when you need to protect your own mental health and encourage them to have certain conversations with someone else. This could be another friend or relative, a GP or a therapist. It could also be with a confidential helpline, such as Samaritans, or a local support group. Mind has information about support groups in your area. You can also call for advice about caring for your own wellbeing.
Also of interest
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