For many people, difficult times arise when one or more partners in a relationship are coping with a mental health concern. For example, the person suffering might feel embarrassed about their concerns, or find it difficult to convey their symptoms. Their partner might feel helpless or confused, and worry about making matters “worse.”
To support individuals whose significant others are dealing with mental health concerns, Kristin Dart, LICSW offers the following tips for aiding one another and strengthening your bond.
How to Support a Partner’s Mental Health
Do Your Research
If you’re dating someone whose coping with a mental health issue, it’s crucial to educate yourself about whatever is affecting them.
“One of the main things I would say is that the partner can learn about what it means [to have a mental health disorder],” Dart says. “They can read blogs on it…books, podcasts, [and] all kinds of things you can listen to.”
Educating yourself is not only a loving thing to do for your partner—it will also ease your experience. Some of your partner’s “mysterious” behaviors might be explained, and certain things you’d thought were “your fault” might turn out to be a natural part of coping with mental health issues. For example:
- Last Thursday, your partner had a panic attack when you came up behind him and hugged him. Initially, you blamed yourself for being “stupid” or a “bad person” and “causing this to happen.” But now you know more about PTSD and triggers, so you know that people who’ve been through trauma sometimes have strong reactions to stimuli that reminds them of the traumatic event. You know you were not a bad person for inadvertently triggering them. The two of you can discuss which types of touch feel safe so that you can avoid a similar experience going forward.
- You threw a birthday party for your significant other, but they didn’t seem to enjoy it at all. At first, you thought your idea was terrible and you’re not a good partner. After learning more about depression, though, it became clear that your partner was experiencing “dysthymia,” or the inability to feel joy. Your gesture was sweet, and your partner wasn’t being ungrateful. Depression just stood in the way of the reaction you’d hoped for.
It can be helpful for partners to speak with others who have experienced similar problems. There are many online and in-person support groups you can join to connect with others, express your own feelings, and discover new coping strategies.
Note that the pressure is not just on you. Your partner can also learn a lot about their own feelings and reactions by researching the issue they’re dealing with.
While reading up on your partner’s concern is a great starting point, don’t stop there. No issue affects all people in the exact same way. For example, one person’s anxiety may totally overwhelm them and cause them to and underperform, while another’s may lead them to overperform as a way of “preventing bad things from happening.” Talking to your partner and figuring out how they’re feeling is a good way to understand how a mental disorder may be affecting them.
Dart recommends directly asking what your partner needs from you. “Ask them, ‘Okay so when you’re feeling this way…what can I do as your partner to support you?” They know themselves better than any textbook ever could.
Dart highly encourages couples coping with mental illness to seek relationship counseling. Couples’ therapy can help strengthen communication skills between partners so that both develop a deeper understanding of what the other is experiencing. Therapists who work with couples are trained in picking up on the stresses and concerns of both parties, and may be able to recognize unhealthy behavioral patterns (or positive coping methods) that you’re unaware of.
Dart also recommends individual therapy, which can have positive effects whether or not you’re the person coping with mental illness. “Therapy is a place where you can understand more about yourself and what you’re able and willing to be a part of, and what’s healthy for you,” Dart says. This is important information for all of us to learn about ourselves, not just those of us with formal diagnoses.
Don’t Forget About Your Needs
It’s important for both you and your partner that you care for your psychological health in addition to theirs. Your wellness matters, and a partner who loves you would never want you to sacrifice your well-being because you believe that doing so will help them (it won’t).
“The core of how to support someone with a mental illness is trying to figure out what you need for your own self,” Dart says. Be mindful of how you’re feeling in the relationship both in terms of what makes you happy and what feels uncomfortable. Communicating with your partner and/or therapist about these concerns can help you maintain your wellbeing.
Finally, know that you’re not alone. 1 in 5 adults in the US experience mental illness each year; which means that there are hundreds of thousands of couples out there with these same concerns. If you’re looking for specific ideas about how to support your loved one, google local support groups or check out the free resources “For Allies” at the mental health hub, the Resilient Brain Project. As always, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any specific questions or concerns.
Thank you for all the love you give.
Cordilia James is a graduate of American University. When she’s not catching up on the news or journaling, you can find her exploring D.C., streaming comedy series, and daydreaming of Waffle House.