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Know Someone Who Has a Mental Illness? This Aid Kit Will Help You to Help Them

There are five basic steps can be taken to help people suffering from a mental distress/disorder.

When a person has an acute physical illness, it can be addressed in the short-term with first aid treatments. But did you know, there is also a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) that aids mental health issues?

Indeed mental disorders can also be addressed initially with Mental Health First Aid.

The goal of MHFA is to help the average person learn how to offer initial assistance to someone who is developing a mental health problem or is in a mental health crisis. The giving of mental health first aid is most relevant in situations when it first becomes apparent to others that a person in their family or social or professional network is developing a mental health problem.

The mental health problems for which first aid is available includes depression, anxiety problems, psychosis and substance use problems. The mental health crises may include: suicidal thoughts and behaviours, non-suicidal self-injury, panic attacks, reactions following a traumatic event, severe psychotic states, severe effects from substance use and aggressive behaviours.

There are many effective ways of responding to people with a mental disorder, and we all can imbibe them in our daily interactions with people around us.

There are five basic steps can be taken to help people suffering from a mental distress/disorder:

1. Assess the risk of harm to self or others
2. Listen without judgment
3. Give reassurance and information
4. Encourage the person to get appropriate professional help
5. Encourage self-help treatments

1. Assess the risk of harm to self or others (and suicide)

People with mental disorders sometimes feel overwhelmed and helpless about their life. Engage the person in a conversation about how they are feeling and let them describe why they are feeling this way.

Ask the person if they are having thoughts of suicide. If they are, find out if they have a plan for suicide. This is not a bad question to ask someone who is distressed. It is important to find out if he/she has had these thoughts to refer him/her for professional help.


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It is generally a call for help when a person talks about suicide, so listen to them and empathize with them. If you believe the person is at risk for of harming him/herself then:

  • Don’t leave the person alone
  • Listen to the feelings of the person. Allow them to talk
  • Seek immediate help from someone who knows about mental health/disorders
  • Try to remove the person from access to the means of taking their own life
  • Avoid the use alcohol or drugs for the person.

2. Listen without judgment

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Listen to what the person describes without being critical or thinking they are weak. Don’t give advice such as ‘just cheer up’ or ‘pull yourself together.’ Avoid getting into an argument with the person.

3. Give reassurance and information

Provide hope for the person and their family and talk about a good outcome for that person. Tell the person that he/she has an illness that can be treated, and it doesn’t mean that he/she is a bad person. Let them know that you want to help.

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4. Encourage the person to get appropriate professional help

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You can encourage the person to consult with a doctor who knows about mental disorders, and who can prescribe medication if necessary. Then you can follow-up by giving ongoing support to the person and their family.

If the person is very unwell, i.e., you think they are suicidal or psychotic, and he/she is refusing to get any help from a doctor–encourage the family to consult with the doctor so that they can explain the situation and get professional support.

5. Encourage self-help treatments

Suggest actions that the person can perform him/herself that can help relieve the symptoms of mental disorder such as:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Regular exercise
  • Relaxation and breathing exercises, e.g. yoga
  • Avoiding alcohol, tobacco or nicotine consumption
  • Joining support groups for women, men or youth
  • Spending time on some hobby each day
  • Taking out time for self
  • Making a schedule and following it

6. Compliance with Medical Treatment

What must be kept in mind is that it is important to take psychiatric medication. The period for psychiatric medication may range from

two to five years and must not be discontinued without the consultation of the doctor. Many times, people stop taking medication and then relapse into another episode. This further reduces the chance of recovery from the illness and the patient often complaints that the medication is ineffective.

It is important to remember that medication must be taken for a prolonged period to see an effective change in the condition of the illness. The myth that psychiatric medication makes an individual dependent on medication also needs to be clarified.

Besides knowing what one can do, it is important to also know about things that one must NOT do or say when they are addressing someone who is in distress.

Some pointers that help us know what NOT to do with a person in distress or suffering from a mental disorder:

  • Ignore or avoid the person
  • Believing the symptoms will just go away
  • Thinking that it is part of life and development
  • Locking the person away
  • Being angry with him/her
  • Relying exclusively on practitioners who use magic or faith healing
  • Arranging a marriage (if they are unmarried)
  • Giving sleeping tablets or appetite stimulants
  • Believing that you can cure the person or that you have all the solutions to their problem
  • Believing that time will heal things in time

Also ReadWhy Mental Healthcare in India Needs to Go Mainstream Now


The MHFA, in simple terms, is building familial and societal support for those who need it. The family is one of the strongest support systems that an individual has, especially in times of crisis or illness. The therapeutic support and care received from a family environment can improve recovery rates, and this has been proven by research.

Written by Pragya Lodha, Associate Programme Developer, The MINDS Foundation, Vadodara (Gujarat)

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Written by The MINDS Foundation

The MINDS Foundation is committed to eliminating stigma towards mental illness through community education.