Girl listening to another girl

Worried about a family member’s mental wellbeing?

Pen Dr Sarah O'Neill Glasses 3 min read

We all go through tough times. In fact, according to recent research by laya healthcare, almost two in three (64pc) people know someone who has struggled with their mental wellbeing.*Usually, it’s the people around us, our friends and family that help us to get through those difficult days. But what happens when a loved one is struggling and you’re not sure how to help them?

What are the warning signs that a family member is suffering from poor mental wellbeing?

A change in your relative’s everyday behaviour could be a sign that something is troubling them. I encourage people to observe any unusual patterns that could be a warning sign.

If someone is going through a loss in their life, be it the loss of a job or a bereavement we know how the people in our lives would normally react or respond. If they start to act differently that could be a clue that something else is going on.

If you feel like something is off, don’t just ignore it and hope that the situation will go away. Be proactive and always follow your gut instincts. It’s important to remind them that it’s OK to talk about this stuff.

How do you start the conversation around mental wellbeing in your home?

Many people find it difficult to broach the topic of mental wellbeing with their family members, but I would encourage everyone to try.  You could use ‘I’ language. For example, “I notice that you’ve stopped going out” or “I feel like you might need to talk about how you’re feeling”. This is an effective way to frame the conversation. If someone says ‘you’ a lot, it can feel quite accusatory and blaming. That can cause someone to feel defensive and then conversations can escalate into rows.

How can I be a better listener?

The value of listening cannot be overstated. You should listen with the goal of understanding, particularly if it’s the first conversation where someone is opening to you

Instead of automatically trying to rush in and fix the problem, you need to take the time to simply listen, without judgement or an action plan. Admittedly this can be easier said than done especially when dealing with a family member that you care about.

We can all be well-intentioned but that often causes us to rush in and try and fix things. We want to make it better for the person that we care about but often that shuts down the conversation. It doesn’t allow that person to open up and explain exactly how they’re feeling. To feel understood is powerful.

What if they refuse to talk?

Your family member may not want to talk about what they are going through. You need to respect their decision.

You might be ready for the conversation, you’ve thought about it, you’ve planned what you want to say, but they might not be open to it at that moment in time. They also may not want to talk to you about it and that’s OK too. Simply say, ‘I know you don’t want to talk to me about it and that’s OK but I am here if you ever need to discuss it because I care about you.’”

Sometimes, our loved ones may feel more comfortable talking to someone they’re not close to, and it’s good to remind them what other external supports they can tap into. You can direct them to talk to their GP, or if they’re a laya healthcare member they can talk to a professional counsellor through the 24/7 Mental Wellbeing Support Programme that members can access in total confidence at no additional cost to their premium. 

What simple things can I do every day to help them through this tough time?

Every single person is different, which is why you should never assume that you know what is best for them. The best thing you should do is simply ask the family member what you can do to help.

It can be as simple as sending a text at the end of the day saying, ‘I know this was happening today and that was a big deal for you, hope you’re doing okay,’” It’s all about simple actions that let someone know that you’re there for them.

Encourage your family member to seek help

You can’t be a therapist to your loved ones. While it’s crucial that you are supportive, you cannot replace professional help. That’s why it is important to have a conversation to encourage them to link in with someone. Whether it’s a GP, someone from their employee wellness programme at work or by ringing laya healthcare’s 24/7 Mental Wellbeing Support Programme, speaking to a professional has real benefits as they’re trained to put structure and a framework of supports around the person in need.

Remember to look after yourself too

It’s like when you’re on a flight and they tell you that you must put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you put it on your child. If one of your loved ones is going through a difficult time, there are moments when you will need to think about your own needs as well. Unless you’re doing OK, you’re not going to be particularly helpful to the person you’re trying to support.

Seek out the things that make you feel better. It can be as simple as hanging out with friends, going to the cinema, or taking a walk in nature. Self-care is extremely important.

If you’re supporting someone that is going through a difficult time, you need to remember to look after yourself too.

For more information visit or download ‘peace of mind’ a guide to mental health

*Research was carried out by Empathy Research on behalf of laya healthcare amongst 1,000 Irish adults aged 18+ in August 2018.

This article was written in collaboration with Independent News and Media with images from Getty images.


Dr Sarah O'Neill

Dr Sarah O’Neill is a chartered psychologist, MD of Spectrum Mental Health and director of Spectrum Wellness. Sarah completed her studies and doctoral training in Trinity College Dublin. Sarah has worked clinically with individuals across the life span in a diversity of settings (including community, general hospital and psychiatric in-patient settings), in both the public and private sector. Sarah currently works in a management role in the private sector as MD of Spectrum Mental Health and director of Spectrum Wellness – splitting her time between clinical practice, clinical governance at a service level, and supporting our MH teams who work with our service users (individuals and company clients). Sarah is passionate about increasing understanding and awareness around mental health, decreasing barriers to accessing support and services, and ensuring evidence based, clinically robust services are delivered across all sectors of our business.