My partner and I have both been struggling with some mental health issues lately due to the stress of school and a few other unexpected life events. We’re both getting the help we need, but my partner and I are unsure of how to best support one another while also managing our own mental health struggles. How can we be good partners to each other while both of us are coping with our own mental health issues?
—Love and Mental Health.
Thanks for your really important and timely question. I want to start by addressing your honesty and openness: When it comes to mental health, it’s always helpful to ask questions, get advice, and build support systems.
I want to go through some of my guidelines on loving someone with mental health issues before I lay out some tips on how to maintain a healthy relationship when both of you are dealing with mental health issues.
We often preach about practicing “self-love” while dealing with mental health issues, but receiving love from others is just as helpful. Many mental illnesses can lead to social isolation and withdrawal, and feeling love and/or being in a relationship combats this directly. Treatment for mental health issues can include building support systems and strong interpersonal relationships, also achieved through love and/or relationships.
First and foremost, always keep empathy and validation top of mind. Whether your loved one is dealing with a bad panic attack or a depressive episode, validate their feelings and what they’re going through. While you might not be able to understand the feelings they’re having, let them know that you’re sorry they’re hurting, and love them either way.
Secondly, get educated on your partner’s specific mental health issues. If your partner suddenly came down with an unexpected physical illness, you’d likely be scanning websites, reading books, and maybe even speaking to experts about how to best care for and support them. We need to do the same for mental health issues too. Remind them as much as you can that they are not their mental illness, nor are they its symptoms: Just as if they were dealing with a physical illness, it does not define them. It’s simply one facet of their life that you can support them with.
Third, be patient. Like physical illnesses, mental illnesses don’t disappear with the snap of a finger: They take time, and dealing with mental health issues can involve tough days, weeks, or months, and can involve several relapses in progress. Don’t get frustrated if there are days your partner can’t get out of bed or others where you need to cancel plans.
Now, let’s talk about your relationship. I want to address a sadly common and stigmatizing misconception head on before I give some advice on how to build and maintain a healthy relationship: Just because two people in a relationship are mentally ill, doesn’t mean that relationship (nor you or your partner) are defective, or destined to fail.
Seeing your loved one in pain is really tough and you’ll probably feel like you want to devote all your time and energy to helping them feel better. This may well be very helpful to both you and your partner, but there comes a time when you’ll need to balance your own mental health and the mental health of your partner.
Caring for someone (especially a loved one) can be extremely physically, mentally and emotionally draining. While we’re devoting our love and time to helping loved ones, we can often forget to take care of our own well-being in the process. This means taking some time each day to check in with your own mental health and having the courage to realize you might need some time to yourself to care for your own health.
A good option is to set time each day or each week to spend some time apart. This also means following the treatments your mental health expert has given to you and maybe also joining support groups. Also keep in mind that some of the symptoms your partner could exhibit might be traumatizing or triggering for you, and that’s valid.
On this point, it’s important to keep in mind that autonomy for people dealing with mental health issues is important, but depending on the severity of your partner’s mental health issues you also need to understand that there’s the possibility you might need to step in and get them the help they need in times of crisis. Talk to them openly and honestly about setting up an emergency plan in times of need: This could include places to go, people to call, or professionals or services to visit.
You also need to understand that it’s not your job to be your partner’s therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist. This is a tough pill to swallow but please leave the treatment and counselling to an expert who is trained in this area. This way, you won’t accidentally cause them more harm than good or take on more of a load you can carry.
Not only will this help you best understand the behaviours and practices you can encourage and participate in that might be helpful to them, but it will also help you understand some of the symptoms they might direct towards you, which can be challenging if misunderstood. This way, you’ll be less prone to take them personally, and more likely to understand that these feelings and urges are hard for them to control.
As with any relationship, open lines of communication are so key. Work together to create an environment where both of you can honestly discuss what you need (and don’t need) from each other. This will help both of you understand when you might need to back off and give your partner space. It might also be helpful to discuss some of the non-verbal cues you and your partner might exhibit that could be difficult to decipher.
To sum it all up, your role as someone with a mental illness who is also a partner to someone dealing with mental illness isn’t to be their psychiatrist or their coach. It’s to be what any partner would want in a relationship, regardless of whether they have a mental illness or not: To be supported, appreciated, validated, understood and empathized with. It’s also extremely important to take the self-care time you need for yourself and to devote an equal amount of time (if not more) to caring for your own mental health as you devote to caring for theirs.