Advice for interacting with people who have MHDs

Psychiatric disorders are illnesses with biological, psychological and social causes. Furthermore, research shows that every third European can experience psychiatric episodes of varying manifestation and degree. The majority of these disorders can be successfully treated. Just like with any other illness, treatment will have the best results if help is provided immediately and if the patient receives support and understanding from the people around them.

A sense of safety is very important for people suffering from psychiatric disorders. More often than not, people fear not only their physical safety but also being criticised, condemned, ridiculed, shunned and rejected. When interacting with people who have psychiatric disorders, it is important to make them feel that you mean no physical or emotional harm. People feel safer when addressed in an understandable language and a friendly tone of voice, leaving enough interpersonal distance or personal space for both parties to feel comfortable. The distance that people usually feel comfortable conversing in is at arm’s length.

The majority of people with psychiatric disorders have an underlying feeling of being unlovable or unworthy. It is important to show our understanding and compassion for their situation – acceptance is paramount.

Praise is also important, because most people suffering from psychiatric disorders feel weak and helpless. They are often consumed by hopelessness. It is important to give them hope, encourage and praise them.

It is easier for people to talk and open up if they feel equal to their conversation partner, instead of patronised, inferior and controlled. Respect and appreciation go a long way. The person has to feel heard and like they have freedom of choice. Sometimes respect can be conveyed by showing that we are willing to learn from the other person.


Avoid common clichés. For someone with a psychiatric disorder, they can cause even more anxiety.

Avoid giving advice. It is better to be a compassionate listener, because unwelcome advice will smother their belief in themselves. If necessary, arrange an appointment with a specialist.

Avoid condemning and criticising the person. You have to remember that people with psychiatric disorders may not even be aware of what is happening.

If the person shows changes in their daily routine, such as disrupted sleeping and eating patterns and variations in mental and emotional states, encourage them to seek out a specialist:

  • express your concern for the overall situation
  • bring their behaviour to their attention in a sensitive and supporting manner
  • listen to what they are telling you
  • show understanding
  • ask if they are going to seek help and, if the answer is negative, ask why not
  • encourage them to join a support group, if available

Although in most cases people with MHDs are not violent or aggressive, delusions or hallucinations might make them feel the need to protect themselves or attack, especially in cases of schizophrenia. If you feel threatened, try to position yourself diagonally across the room from the person, giving you both the option to leave the room. Avoid direct eye contact, talk calmly but clearly. Do not argue with or provoke the person; instead, give them a chance to speak, show understanding and compassion, try to reach a compromise and convince them that you want to help. If none of the above methods work and you fail to calm the person down, leave the room. In particularly acute and dangerous situations, call the emergency medical services and inform them that the person is being aggressive.