How To Support A Partner With Mental Illness, According To Experts
Mental health issues are complex, and every individual who lives with a mental illness needs unique care and support. While managing mental health is primarily between the person with mental health issues and their treatment team of mental health professionals, outside support — whether from family, friends, a mentor, or a partner — is a large component to staying in recovery, and keeping healthy.
"Living with a mental health issue can be very difficult. Living with or loving someone with a mental health issue can also be difficult and confusing," Scott Dehorty, a licensed therapist and Executive Director at Maryland House Detox, Delphi Behavioral Health Group, tells Bustle.
If you are in a relationship with someone who struggles with mental health issues, it's super important to create a deeper understanding of mental illnesses — especially your partner's diagnosis. There is still so much stigma surrounding mental illness, especially around dating people with mental health issues. Talking about those misconceptions is key to creating a healthier, happier relationship. At times, you may feel lost or unsure of how to help your partner when they're struggling, or dealing relapse. However, there are tools and skills you can utilize to keep your relationship healthy.
1. Learn About Your Partner's Specific Illness
Symptoms of most mental illnesses encompass way more than just cycles of anxiety and depression — there are unique thought, behavioral, and emotional patterns associated with different mental health issues. So, educating yourself on all aspects of your partner's mental health issue(s) is super important. Dr. Steve Levine, a board certified psychiatrist and founder and CEO of Actify Neurotherapies, tells Bustle, "Learn about your partner’s mental health condition. The more you know, the better you’ll be able to support, and it also signals interest in trying to understand what [they're] going through."
Moreover, Dehorty adds, "Knowledge is power, and without the proper knowledge, one may start 'filling in the blanks' with misinformation, exacerbating the situation."
2. Create A Crisis Or Prevention Plan Together
"Have a plan. Write out, with your partner (or have your partner write out, with you), the warning signs of the illness onset and action steps to take when it is identified," says Dehorty. "Part of seeing someone struggling with mental illness is a feeling of powerlessness over how to help; with a plan in place, you have power."
Having an agreed upon plan of action during moments of crisis is a crucial tool to ensure you and your partner's wellbeing. Additionally, forming a preventative plan could even help you and your partner avoid a mental health crisis altogether.
3. Ask For Professional Help When You Need It
Dr. Sherry Benton, founder and CSO of TAO Connect, tells Bustle that couples who are dealing with mental health issues should "ask a mental health professional or health specialist for guidance," as well as "use support networks such as [the] National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI)."
Psychotherapy and medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are widely effective in treating depression and anxiety, other mental health issues may require more trial and error before finding a helpful treatment. So, don't be afraid to ask for help: at your partner's discretion, find trusted mental health professionals who can serve as outside support.
4. Do Nothing
This tip may sound counterproductive, but sometimes, people with mental health issues (or anyone, really) need to just vent — without necessarily needing a solution or advice. "We have all heard the expression, 'Don’t just stand there, do something!' What is much more difficult, but often perceived as more supportive is, 'Don’t just do something, stand there,'" explains Dr. Levine. "Many of us feel that support requires an active intervention. However, action is often in the service of tempering our own feelings of helplessness when faced with a suffering loved one. Much of the time, the mere act of being present and listening is the most supportive."
So, next time you feel the need to jump into action, take a second to slow down, and ask your partner what they need. Dr. Levine adds to "Practice remaining calm and feeling non-judgmental. We may not be able to understand or relate to the experience of a partner’s mental health issues, but calm acceptance reduces feelings of isolation and the panic of potential rejection."
Communication is a foundational component in any relationship, but learning how to communicate well is even more important if your partner lives with mental illness. "There are many mental illnesses that lead to isolation and withdrawal," says Dehorty. "Consistent communication is key. Just checking in with one another is helpful." Again, learning more about your partner's diagnosis, or participating in couples therapy may help you identify a health communication style.
6. Don't Let Mental Illness Define Your Relationship
"Continue to work on the relationship just as you would if there were no mental illness," says Dr. Thomas. "How one copes with mental health is often more important than what mental illness someone may have.”
Though living with mental illness can greatly affect someone's life — and their partner's life — it does not, and should not have to define your entire relationship.
7. Practice Your Own Self-Care
Dr. Thomas suggests practicing self-care regularly will actually help you better support your partner, and relationship. Though self-care looks different for everyone, Dehorty suggests partners of people with mental health issues seek out their own support to talk about their experiences, and says it's important to set boundaries.
"You can’t make someone better. If someone has the resources, the plan, knows the steps to take, but will not [use them], you do not have to go down with them," he says. "You can love them by telling them they need to get better in order for the relationship to continue. This is not an ultimatum that they stop being mentally ill, but the realization that you need to take care of yourself first."
Navigating mental health issues in a relationship can be difficult, but it simply takes work — like anything else in a relationship. These tips from mental health professionals themselves can help you develop a meaningful, trusting connection with your partner.