Relationships are hard work. You can ask this to anyone who is in one or has been in one and they will tell you that choosing the same person every day through all their good and bad days can be testing. But when it comes to being in a relationship where the person you love might be mostly experiencing downs or having a hard time with their Mental Health or has a Mental Illness it can make it feel a little harder.
It can be really heart-wrenching to see a loved one struggle with their Mental Health or having a mental illness and often not knowing how to make things better for them. Irrespective of whether you fell in love before or after them being diagnosed, loving and supporting someone with a mental illness can feel overwhelming at many times. Additionally, the stigma around this space can make it harder to find support for yourself in the community and for your loved one. In this piece we will look at how we can support someone we love who might be having a Mental Illness or coping with poor Mental Health.
To begin with, it can be really helpful to familiarise yourself with their diagnosis. Symptoms of Mental Illnesses can be a bit confusing and it can make you feel that your partner is being distant, irritable, lazy, irrational or that they are overreacting but it can be a part and parcel of what they are going through. Things like knowing their triggers, what makes them feel better, what their love languages might be or what helps them soothe can be little things for you, but can make a big difference to them, especially in moments of distress. While understanding their diagnosis, also remember that this isn't a phase or something they can ‘snap out’ of or ‘get over’, however much you might want it to be so. This will require time and might need varied forms of professional support and acceptance is what can make it easier for both them and you.
The next thing worth keeping in mind is knowing your responsibility. Know that sometimes you are not responsible for their shifting moods, but if you have done something which had hurt them, please apologise rather than trying to shrug off your responsibility by blaming it on their Mental Illness (that would be gaslighting!). Know that while their condition is manageable, there won’t be a ‘one size fits all’ for their experiences or recovery - what worked for your friend’s cousin is not going to be the same as what might help your partner, even if they have the same diagnosis, and that’s ok. It is also really important to remember that they cannot get better because you want them to. Yes, your being there can help them feel loved, cared for and supported and it might even save their life, but guilt-tripping someone into recovery won’t make it a reality, however much you think it might. You can’t be inside their head while they battle those intrusive thoughts telling them that they are worthless, or that they will be abandoned or that they aren’t loved, but you can be a helpful ear and a person for them to confide in. You can be their safe space and support them in their journey towards recovery. As their safe person, affirm them that they are more than their diagnosis. It can also help to have a wellness and crisis plan in place to help support them, especially if you feel they are at risk of suicide or self-harm.
Through the course of your relationship, it is important to be patient and understanding. While they may not expect you to be their healer, saviour or messiah, little things like having a gentle tone, keeping your promises (especially around time), avoiding raising your voice or making nasty remarks can go a long way and help alleviate stress. Another aspect of this is in understanding their point of view and understand that while you can’t directly put yourself in their shoes, knowing that they see the world differently and may not respond to stress in the same way as you is important. Sometimes it can take them longer to get over a disagreement, or they might be bottling things inside and may appear to have a greater reaction to a small event, or might even express feeling discomfort without knowing why as the stress might linger on with them longer, and that’s something which needs to be handled with care and patience.
Another thing which can go a long way is showing genuine care and empathy. There is so much stigma associated with Mental Illness or poor Mental Health that your partner might really struggle with their emotions and in knowing what they mean to you. In such moments, it helps to provide reassurance and remind them that you are there for them, that you love them and will be there ‘in sickness and in health’. This can go a long way to help them feel supported. When it comes to showing the empathy, it is important to do this irrespective of how bad someone else has it. If you are able to show them genuine care and empathy, they are likely to feel more secure and feel more safe to being vulnerable with you. As part of this, you may also look at providing them validation and acknowledging how they might be feeling.
When it comes to supporting your partner, offer them your unconditional and continuous support. Know that they are already ‘trying harder’ - you may feel tempted to tell them to push harder at recovering but know that their Mental illness needs the same kind of compassion and support and a physical illness, so just as you won’t ask someone with a broken arm to ‘try harder’, neither should you subject them to this. They need more than grit, resilience and determination to recover. As part of providing them with support, what can help is encouraging them to engage in self-care and this can include things like eating healthy, getting enough sleep, getting some fresh air for instance which can all contribute to healthy lifestyle choices. Helping them keep away from unhealthy coping mechanisms such as turning to drugs or alcohol can also help.
Last, but not the least, look after your own self. Caregiving and loving someone who might be experiencing the lows of life can take a toll on you too and the stigma around Mental Illness can make it hard to reach out and share your experiences. Look out for support groups for caregivers or reach out to a Mental Health professional if you need the support. If you don’t end up focussing on your Mental Health and yourself, you will hamper your overall wellbeing and even your relationship. You need to also focus on the basics - physical activity, timely and healthy meals, adequate sleep, spending time with loved ones and engaging in hobbies. This can help you prioiritise your wellbeing and also help prevent compassion fatigue or empathy burnout (To know more on this, we have a previous post around this).
To anyone who loves and stands by their partner who is battling an invisible battle in their mind, thank you. Thank you for being the hope in their lives, because you might be the only one thing keeping in them alive and keeping them from being consumed by their depression, anxious or intrusive thoughts, suicidal thoughts and a plethora of other mental tortures. You may not have the answers or the solutions, but by remaining by their side, you make them feel like living when a lot inside them wants them to die. Know that it might not be easy all the time, but the person you fell in love with is still there, even when they are struggling and in pain.
See them as a person, and not their diagnosis & focus on hope and not their helplessness in moments of agony.
Written by: Yash Mehrotra
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