When a child has a physical illness, you know how to support the family – you take them a meal, go for a walk or offer a hug.

But when a child has a mental illness, people sometimes feel more uncomfortable about how to help the family. So what is the best way?

The exact same way as someone with a physical illness.

Here are five ways you can support a friend turned caregiver of a child who has been diagnosed with a mental illness.

  1. Listen. You may not understand what your friend is going through, but lending an ear shows them they have a support system. Don’t attempt to fix the situation. They just want to be heard and know they are not alone.
  2. Learn. Learn about the child’s mental health diagnosis so you can help in future situations. Your friend will appreciate a second set of eyes and ears that can recognize changes in their child’s behavior.
  3. Act. The beginning stages of a mental health diagnosis can be overwhelming. Determining the right treatment plan is not always clear cut. Put yourself in your friend’s shoes. What would you want help doing? Cleaning the house? Mowing the lawn? Grocery shopping? Show up and do it.
  4. Help them practice self-care. About one out of four caregivers of a person with a mental illness reports feeling depressed themselves. Caregivers often feel guilty for taking time for themselves. But, they must be healthy themselves – mentally and physically – to provide the best care to their child. Modeling self-care also shows to their child that taking responsibility for their own health and wellness are important. This includes getting enough sleep, exercising and asking for help. Offer to take a 15-minute power walk with your friend each day, and hold them accountable. It’s important! Or if you see they are struggling, research local support groups and suggest they join.
  5. Include them. Continue asking your friend to lunch or a movie, but don’t be offended if they keep saying no. It makes them feel better knowing they aren’t being left behind and you still want to spend time with them. And when they do say yes, they will appreciate feeling like their pre-caregiver self, if only for a couple of hours.