7 Tips For Helping A Partner With Mental Illness
Mental illnesses are tough. You get all the crappy-feeling that inevitably comes with any physical illness, but you don’t get a doctor pointing a decisive, vaguely comforting finger at a part of you saying “This – this is the problem, and this is how it’s going to be fixed.”
But mental illnesses don’t just affect the people who directly suffer from them. They also affect the people closest to the sufferers – their families, friends and, maybe most of all, their partners. An incredible amount of pressure is put on the spouses of sufferers to do the right thing, say the right thing and never make a mistake in their venture to help their loved one. It’s worrying and frustrating and scary to see the person you love slowly slipping into the depths of depression, anxiety or any other mental illness. When the stakes are so high, it can be hard to know the right course of action to take. But there are a few things you can do to help.
1. Listen, don’t lecture
Heard the term ‘suffer in silence’? This is extremely apt for mental health sufferers. Often the fear that comes from feeling unwell and not truly understanding why results in feelings and emotions being bottled right up. If your partner DOES decide to open up to you about his or her feelings, remember: listen, don’t lecture. Let them say everything that they want to say. They may be worried that vocalising their thoughts will scare you away. Offer comforting words to let them know that they’re cared about, and that this isn’t the case, but don’t offer advice unless they directly ask for it. The most important thing is to reassure them that they can talk to you without judgement or criticism.
2. Don’t smother them
They’re depressed/anxious/bipolar, okay. Sure. But they don’t need reminding of it all the time, whether it be verbally, being watched all the time, or constantly being asked if they’re ‘okay’. They’re not okay, but feeling stifled under the well-meaning intention of comfort or care can do more harm than good. On the flip side, don’t completely pretend that nothing’s going down. Don’t change your day-to-day attitude around them: be positive, but let them know that you’re not ignoring the problem and that you’re always here to listen.
3. Be patient
It can be extremely frustrating to be the partner of a person living with a mental health problem. At times this frustration can manifest itself into anger or resentment directed at the boyfriend/girlfriend. What’s important to remember is that mental illnesses are extremely, extremely debilitating and that they are just that – illnesses. Your partner is not CHOOSING to act this way, and lashing out at them or throwing comments such as “Cheer up, will you?” will inevitably only make things worse.
4. Develop a (slightly) thick(er) skin
It is so, so easy to take your girlfriend/boyfriend’s low mood personally. Like, are you/is what you’re doing not enough for them? What more do they want to feel happy? Unfortunately, mental illnesses completely change the way that people think about things. They still appreciate you, even if it’s hard to see it that way sometimes. If they’re snappier than usual at times, try to remember this. However, if their bad mood turns into full-blown abuse (verbal, mental or physical) take a stand and tell them that, while you understand their situation, you won’t let them treat you in such a way.
5. Look after yourself
If you let your own life slide into disarray while trying to help your other half, you’ll ultimately be no good to anybody. Make sure to take some time out for yourself, to keep doing things with friends and keep up with hobbies and interests, get enough sleep, keep your diet good, etc. The worry that comes from trying to deal with or show care towards a mental health sufferer can often mean you put their needs first and your own second. Likewise, don’t let yourself become a doormat. Your partner may start to rely on you more and more to the point where it becomes too much. Remember that, while you want to help them as best you can, you are PARTNERS in this relationship – not carers and patients.
6. Get educated
This is much easier if your partner already has a diagnosis from a doctor. If they have, read up on whichever disorder they’re suffering from. Learn the symptoms, course and consequences of what they’re suffering. While you might not be able to empathise, you can ultimately sympathise more appropriately and offer support if you’re more in the know.
7. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
If your other half is feeling suicidal, get help immediately. Most likely they’ll try and tell you that you’re betraying them and fight being taken. What’s important to remember in these situations is that, at that moment in time, they are NOT themselves. Mental illness takes over your personality, leaving you unrecognisable to yourself. No-one should take the pressure that comes with dealing with a suicidal person by themselves. If they’re at this stage, they need professional help, which far outstrips what you are able to offer them.
Do you have anything to add? Share your tips and experience in the comments below.