How do I support a partner with a mental illness?
1 in 4 people will experience mental illness each year and it is thought this number is rising. Someone recovery or with a history of mental illness needs to think carefully about when the right time is to start looking for a partner and dating. I had been ill for a long time and I had been working hard on recovery when I thought I’d got to the point, I was not quite fully recovered but my illness did not define me anymore. I was happy being single but I wanted to investigate the world of dating to see if “the one” was out there for me.
So, what if you’re starting out in a new relationship, you’re getting the right vibes and wondering if this could be longer term, then the other person opens up to you that they’re recovering or that they have a history of mental illness, what do you do, what do you say? When we’re presented with something new, fight, flight or freeze might be the immediate response but first things first, breath… communication is key!
1. Ask them what they need – This may sound obvious but it’s really important not to assume you know what’s best without asking them. Even if the person doesn’t know exactly what will help, this will get the conversation going. If they’re telling you about a history of mental illness, ask them if there are any signs of them getting ill that you can look out for. When I started my relationship, with my soon-to-be husband, what I needed was not to be treated differently – I didn’t want my mental illness to be part of our relationship. However, there were still things I struggled with so we talked through those and we worked out how he could help, without me becoming reliant on him. For example, we couldn’t go out for a meal spontaneously.
2. Don’t make glib remarks – Please do not say “cheer up”, “snap out of it” or “but you look OK”. These (or similar) may be well-meaning but mental illness, just like physical illness, needs professional treatment and comments like this can lead to the sufferer feel like they’re not being taken seriously. Remember symptoms of mental illness can fluctuate and therefore they may manage tasks one day and not the next. Also, someone may “look fine”, they may even say they’re fine because that’s what they think is expected but most symptoms of mental illness are hidden, try not to judge them or treat them based on what you see.
3. Be there to listen – Even if this is a new situation for you, we’re all capable of listening. You may need to explicitly tell them “I’m here if you want to talk about anything”. When you ask how they are, don’t accept “fine”, make sure they know you’re genuinely interested in how they are and make sure you have time to listen. Talking has lots of benefits, when I found my voice, being able to get my thoughts and feelings out of my head made me feel calmer and more able to cope. It took me a while to find my voice, when most distressed, I found it easier to write things down than to talk out loud, as I recovered, periods of acute distress became less severe and happened less often.
4. It is not your job to make them better – Starting a new relationship should be an exciting journey together, there shouldn’t any imbalance. If you’re concerned you can’t tell the difference between their personality traits and traits of their illness and they won’t talk about it, if it just doesn’t feel right, you don’t have to continue with the relationship. Although there’s a lot of disheartening news around at the moment and waiting time for mental health support, it’s important they seek professional help if they haven’t already.
5. Look after yourself – The saying goes, “you can’t give from an empty cup”. If you’ve decided to give this relationship a go and you’re sticking together longer term, being there for someone with a mental illness can be really hard; if you don’t look after yourself, you’re not going to be able to be there for them. I would say any healthy relationship is made up of quality time together and time apart, this relationship should not be an exception; make sure you do things just for you, whether it’s time with your friends or doing a hobby, make sure you make this a priority.
6. Keep the conversation going – Whatever the stage of recovery your new partner is at, they may still have good and bad days. Recovery can be a rocky road and there will always be setbacks, being consistent with your support on the good days and bad will really help. I cannot stress how important talking is for any relationship. Make sure you express how you think things are going as well as giving them an opportunity to talk.
Experiencing mental illness, whether as the person with the diagnosis or trying to support someone, can be incredibly scary. However, speaking from experience, going through tough times together and pulling through will make the relationship stronger. Mental illness can be one of the hardest things a person can go through, having a supportive partner can make all the difference.
If you’re struggling with mental health or need support, take a look at Mind or the Mind and Soul Foundation.