Helping a loved one who struggles with mental illness

Inspired by this prompt.

I’m lucky. I have a boyfriend who is not only incredibly understanding and patient, but is also courageous enough to help me navigate the perplexing maze of thoughts and emotions that is “mental illness”. It has likely been easier for us to understand each other because he’s familiar with the subject himself and while everyone experiences mental illness differently, their potentially erratic and unpredictable nature often sets a common tone that many of us may be familiar with.

Now you don’t have to have experienced mental illness yourself to be able to support someone you love who is going through it. There are many things you can do to show that you care or to actively help – I’m going to share some of the ones that have been most meaningful for me.

Don’t let it define your relationship. 

If either you or your partner have struggled with mental health problems I probably don’t have to remind you that sufferers are first and foremost, human above all else. While people may exhibit different “symptoms” or have received different diagnoses for what they’re going through, nothing should take precedence over someone’s individuality and their own unique personal experience. I think it’s important to remember that you are both much more than any list of symptoms or diagnostic label you may or may not have. If you are surprised to find out that your partner is, or has been struggling, that’s okay – but I’ll remind you that there is nothing fundamentally different about them as a person whether they choose to share their diagnosis or not, or whether they choose to go to therapy or not for example. The more you can continue to see each other as the two individuals that you are, who happened to fall in love (or who care about each other in a non-romantic way), and the more you can continue to treat each other as such, the less likely you’ll be to get lost scrambling through the labyrinth instead of enjoying the journey.

The dynamics of any relationship can certainly change depending on the health of those involved as you may find that the needs of each individual change, and necessarily so do your specific roles. This seems unavoidable and interestingly, I’m doing more research on the implications of the “sick role” and the possible functions many maladaptive coping mechanisms might fill in mental illness (so stay tuned for a relevant blog post in the future). However, being conscious of how different roles and responsibilities affect you and your partner can help tune you into potential stressors early and give you time to decide what you can and cannot ask of each other. In short, try to be conscious of your boundaries before they are over-stepped. 

Communicate – Openly & Often

Frequent and honest communication has been the number one most helpful thing in my experience. I’ll admit though, it hasn’t been easy. Whether you’re trying to understand what your partner is going through or you’re trying to explain that experience to them, it can be incredibly frustrating and confusing. Trying to make sense of a largely non-sensical situation is difficult. I would recommend checking in with each other frequently. If you’re struggling to put your feelings into words, writing things down can be very helpful. Maybe find a song that conveys how you’re feeling.

Try to step into each others shoes and appreciate that although it can be difficult for you both, it’s not unmanageable. Good communication is an opportunity to recognize the mutual challenges you may face as you navigate the harrowing twists and turns of this experience while simultaneously acknowledging the strength you demonstrate in doing so.

Listen, without judgement

Mental illness can come with all sorts of erroneous negative feelings of shame, guilt, loneliness, isolation, anxiety etc. Providing a safe environment where your loved one feels comfortable to share their emotions can help them feel significantly less alone. They’re not expecting you to have answers and they may not even expect you to fully understand, but if you can, it’s important to do your best to listen as non-judgementally as possible. Respect that what your partner confides in you is not necessarily yours to share. [That being said, it is also not yours alone to bear, and if you believe you or your partner are at risk of hurting yourself or others please seek medical help.]

Learn about their disorder

I already encouraged you not to dismiss the idiosyncrasies of individual experience, but there is something to be said for finding resources that can better help you and your partner understand the situation you find yourselves in. Ignorance breeds fear and fear breeds stigmatization. Whether or not stigma is an obstacle in your relationship, knowledge is power, and taking the time to learn about your loved one’s disorder (either from outside materials or from them personally) can really help. It gives you an opportunity to recognize and deal with potentially triggering situations as well as to know what to expect and where to get help. You can support your partner in seeking out constructive and healthy environments for yourselves. For example, if being in loud and busy house parties is particularly stressful for them, you could offer to accompany them to the movies or to dinner instead on occasion.

Some online research or even a chat with a professional can help you be mindful of what behaviours may be risky and should therefore be avoided and can also give you some tools and resources to help navigate more complicated situations. The unfortunate thing about mental illnesses is that they can be difficult to understand or predict, but learning about them can really help not only show your partner that you care but also curb some uneasiness or confusion.

Acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers and encourage them to seek help from professionals who may be able to help them find some.

If you’re like me you might hate admitting that there’s something you don’t know, or even worse – admitting that you were wrong. The unfortunate reality is, with mental illness and science in general, you’re much more likely to find yourself with more questions than answers.

If you’re like me, you might also dislike admitting that you need help. As is the case with mental illness in particular it can often feel like you’re admitting to struggling to cope with things otherwise deemed “normal” or that are expected of you.

Neither position is easy. Both are undeniably human. The truth is, no one is supposed to do it alone – people aren’t expected to know how to heal someone else, nor to know how to heal themselves. The human species wouldn’t have evolved this far if we were expected to survive on our own. We certainly wouldn’t be producing even more psychologists and medical professionals if people were expected to recover from a broken rib or post-traumatic stress disorder alone.

Getting access to professional help can be a battle on its own and can demand a lot of time and patience as both seeking help and admitting you don’t have the solutions can be difficult things to do. Remind your partner that your desire for them to get help is coming from a place of love and that you truly want them to feel well. Oftentimes, mental illnesses can be pretty debilitating. For example, depression commonly drains energy and motivation, necessarily this can also make seeking help difficult. In these times you may find yourself asking a lot of your partner and of yourself. A willingness to pursue other support may or may not have anything to do with your partner’s commitment, love or respect for you.

Encouraging someone to pursue professional help is important for many reasons as it gives them with a better opportunity to be happy and healthy, can relieve stress from loved-ones who might feel like they have expectations that they should know what to do and who just want their partners to be safe and healthy, and in extreme circumstances, can be medically necessary.

Navigating the twists and turns of a relationship can be unpredictable at best, when you throw mental health into the picture, it can be extra trying. Wishing you the patience, peace, and all the best in your journey. I’ll leave you with a quote (from an original blog post I seem to have lost… please leave a comment if you happen to know where it’s from!)

“If you want to maintain a relationship with these folks, you’re going to have to extend yourself beyond your previous comfort levels,” Greg continues. “This may take the form of more frequent phone calls, making yourself more available to listen and engage socially and invitations to join in activities to ‘get out of the house,’ perhaps with mutual friends. All of this is likely to require patience and maybe a lot of it for longer than you’d like.”

And I’d like to add, that often great things lie beyond our comfort zones, and your patience may well be worth it.

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