Don't Be Scared To Show You Care - how to respond to a loved one with mental health problems

by David Gilbert

April 15, 2018

A friend asked on twitter, is it OK to wish you better? I replied ‘why not’?

It reminded me of the psychiatric ward many years ago. There were few visitors. And nobody brought flowers. I had one ‘get well’ card from my mum until it got ripped up by another inmate.

You who do not know mental pain, but mean well (and nowadays that is most people I believe) tend to stay wary of how best to show your care for those going through emotional hell.


Is it because you are worried, lest our emotional volatility erupts in ways unintended, and your good intentions are misinterpreted. Are you worried more about your own feelings, of being misunderstood? If so, get over it. But I am not sure that is it.

Is it concern that you may cause additional offence? How? By being patronising somehow? Getting closer here I think...

Perhaps a bland set of phrases (they are a bit cliched aren't they? Get Well or I Hope You Feel Better Soon. Thinking Of You) cannot account for the nuances of emotional suffering.

Are flowers too crude a gesture? Do they intimate too much colour? Too much hope?

Thinking of ‘get well’ cards. I look forward to the day when some insightful artist takes to the page and I get a card saying ‘Get well get well get well from your OCD’… or not. Is that the point again? That it is too close to offence? That because many do not understand the nature of mental suffering then the fine line between humour and offence is too risky? Maybe.

When I was ill a couple of years ago, my boss and I did not talk about whether it was OK to disclose to others that I was unwell and why. As a result, I got a card signed ‘From all of us’. This exacerbated my feelings of being isolated. But how were they to know? They were doing their best.

In some ways, we who are suffering need to make it OK for others to show they care – this seems a bit weird and a lot of work when we are already going through so much pain. But the consequence of not doing so may be….


It is my own personal opinion (everyone is different) but I would prefer you to say something to show you care, than be silent. For silence exacerbates the gulf I feel between my feelings of badness and your seeming world of normaility. I may not reply (give me time, I do need rest perhaps) but you will have been heard.

Caring is always a tentative craft, balancing the encouragement with the reassurance, the gentleness of advice to rest and take it easy, with the exhortations not to lose hope for the future. Carers are careful not to add insult to injury, literally. In mental health, that anxiety about offence may be more top of mind (sic).

(By the way: The phrases to avoid for someone whose brain, mind or feelings are clouded in black is anything to do with witnessing colour – in other words, I will actually bite you in the balls, or wherever, if you say anything like ‘cheer up, or ‘be positive’. There are other things you can say surely? I have received wonderful twitter messages, but the only one I have not ‘liked’ is one that has told me ‘how wonderful the world is if only I could see it’. Er. No. Blocked)

During my recent bout of awfulness, I made a point of writing a note to colleagues that it was OK, it was more than OK, to get in touch, to ask about things, to show they cared. And last week, I got a card that made me teary, signed by everybody. I didn’t feel quite so alone.

So, if you are worried about a loved one who has mental health problems… don’t be scared to show you care. Send a card, send flowers, send a little of what is in your heart. You may get it wrong. And if you do, use it to explore what it is you can do or say next time that helps. But in fact, your caring may help do a tiny bit to prevent a next time.

And if you have any other ideas as to what gets in the way of being able to say you care, let me know.

NB. I have written several blogs recently on trying to come through mental health problems. This was the previous one... about 'refinding balance' and what I have learned about tactics for 'recovery'. I also write poetry and have said more in poems about my 'journey' than in prose. You may like these poems (or not!)



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© 2018 David Gilbert


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One comment on “Don't Be Scared To Show You Care - how to respond to a loved one with mental health problems”

  1. I think some of the reason too is fear. Fear of "catching it" as I believe most of us are fragile in our mental health and worry if we might tip over the edge.
    I know also from personal experience that when a friend was in a psychiatric ward and made some fairy cakes especially for me I just cried. He was not a man to make iced fairy cakes and all I kept doing was crying and thinking "here is my friend on he's mentally ill". I did go for some help and counselling myself in how to help and support him instead of feeling self-pitying. I know now that is he was still here to do that I would thank him for them and be grateful that he could think of me whilst going through what he was going through.
    So to me it is that not knowing. Whilst learning how to help my friend I read about tribes in the Amazon that has ceremonies for people with various mental health issues which must mean it is not uncommon. Here in the west we try to cover them up and hope they'll go away. Again I think another reason why we don't bring cards or gifts - because we want to forget that said person has mental health problems and also that we are fragile too

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