Helping someone you care for


Family and friends are there for each other in the good times, and the bad times. Being there for a family or friend in the good times is usually easy and enjoyable. But when someone you care about goes through a rough patch, it can be hard to know what to do or say. This can be particularly challenging if your family member or friend is not just having a bad day, but experiencing a mental health problem.

The good news is there are some simple steps you can take to look after someone you care for, regardless of what challenges they may be facing. These steps are sometimes called ‘Mental Health First Aid’, and can be remembered using the simple acronym, REACT.


  1. Recognise symptoms

  2. Engage the person

  3. Actively listen

  4. Check risk of harm

  5. Take action

1. Recognise symptoms of mental health difficulties

One of the easiest ways to do this is to know your family members and friends well, as changes in their usual behaviour can often be the first sign that something is not right. Symptoms of mental health difficulties include:

  • physical reactions like nausea, sweating or shaking

  • changes in thinking like negative outlook or poor concentration

  • behavioural changes like disrupted sleep, increased aggression

  • excessive drinking and/or smoking

  • emotional changes like sadness, anger or anxiety.

2. Engage the person

After you’ve recognised the symptoms, engage with your family member or friend. Talk to them. For example, you might say "I’ve noticed X, Y and Z, are you ok?". Plan a time to talk without interruptions and have this conversation in private if possible, just be yourself and listen to them.

3. Actively listen

Whilst engaging with your family member or friend, you need to actively listen. Through active listening you will be able to understand what your mate is really saying. You do this by listening, reflecting and seeking clarification:

"So it sounds like you’re feeling angry because of XYZ, am I right?".

Allow them time to vent if need be, and don’t be afraid to allow some silence in your conversation. Sometimes people need silence in order to think. This is not the time to argue with them, to tell them you know how they feel, or try to solve their problems. Simply listen, reflect and clarify.

4. Check suicide risk and risk of harm to others

If, after engaging and actively listening, you are at all concerned that your family member or friend is at risk of suicide, self-harm or harm to other people, you need to ask them about it directly. For example, ask your friend or family member: "Have you been thinking about suicide?" It is a myth that you put the idea into someone’s head by asking this. If they are considering suicide or self-harm they should be taken to a doctor for assessment. If they are considering harming others, the police need to be involved. In both cases you need to remove any threats where it’s safe to do so. You should never agree to keep secrets or leave them alone if they are in crisis.

Learn more about suicide prevention on Operation Life.

5. Take action

If you think they would benefit from support, a GP is always a good place to start, with tailored health checks available for the ex-serving community, and the ability to direct your family member or friend to the appropriate professional care. If your family member or friend is not at risk of hurting themselves or others, and you are no longer concerned about their mental health, you might choose to simply keep an eye on how they’re travelling for a while.

Remember, don’t ignore someone who is struggling, or think that it is just their problem to deal with. Help out in in both the good and the bad times - use the REACT Mental Health First Aid strategy if ever you’re concerned about someone's mental health.

Remember to look after yourself and seek help for yourself if needed.