Helping someone you care for

Family and friends are there for each other in the good times and the bad. Being there for family or a friend in the good times is easy. 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 they have a mental health issue.

There are simple steps you can take to look after someone you care for. These steps are sometimes called ‘Mental Health First Aid’, and can be remembered using the simple acronym, REACT.

REACT

Recognise symptoms

Engage the person

Actively listen

Check risk of harm

Take action.

1. Recognise symptoms of mental health difficulties

If you've known the person for a while, changes in their usual behaviour can often be the first sign that something is not right. You may notice:

  • Physical reactions like nausea, sweating or shaking

  • Changes in thinking, like a 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

If you notice a change, engage. Start a conversation. Keep it simple and direct. 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 take the time to listen.

3. Actively listen

While engaging with your family member or friend, you need to actively listen. Through active listening, you will be able to understand what they're 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 they want to. Don’t be afraid to allow some silence in your conversation. Sometimes people need silence to think.

Remember, this is not the time to argue with them, to tell them you know how they feel, or try to solve their problems. This is the time to listern, 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.

Be clear and direct: "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 at 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 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.