4 Ways To Support A Partner Struggling With Mental Health, From A Therapist
What are all the things you considered before going on your first date with your partner? Appearance? Job title? Sense of humor? More than likely, mental health and wellness did not cross your mind.
But according to a 2019 study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults had experienced difficulty with their mental health and wellness—so it's likely that a prospective partner, or someone you're already in a relationship with, will or has experienced struggles with their mental health.
I've often had couples come in for therapy expressing concern and seeking guidance on how to support their partner on their mental health journey. Some of the most common things they have sought guidance on have been:
- Asking how they can help—and whether or not their questions would be interpreted as nagging or micromanaging
- Asking questions about what it is like to struggle with mental health wellness, navigating the potential of making their partner feel judged and uncomfortable
- Not knowing what to do or where to start, feeling helpless and defeated
- Feeling incapable and unprepared—aka, dealing with the mental load needed to continuously provide emotional support
If you feel stuck navigating your safe space with your partner now that you've become aware of their mental health struggles, know that there are definitely ways you can help. Below are a few things you can do. Be mindful that you cannot mess it up or make it worse—you are working on being present, and that matters!
1. Don't be afraid to initiate conversations about their mental health.
Struggling with mental health and wellness can be an isolating experience, as our mental health is not visible, and invisible illness often can feel disregarded and difficult to address. Oftentimes the individual struggling with it feels like it is a burden and will hesitate to share how they are truly feeling for fear of feeling like they are an inconvenience and the bearer of doom and gloom.
I recommend speaking with your partner to see if creating a check-in system can work for you both. You want to be able to communicate a feeling of safety with your actions and words. For instance:
- Create a code word or sign that can be used by your partner if they need help and are unable to fully communicate what's wrong.
- Have weekly uninterrupted check-ins that afford you both space to speak about what went well in the week, what you would like to see more of, and areas of opportunity for the following week.
2. Listen first.
If you or your partner decide to initiate a conversation regarding their mental health, listen intently without interruption in order to take in their experience. It may seem elementary, but active listening with your eyes and ears will communicate to your partner that you respect their willingness to let you in and that what they are saying matters.
Many times, a partner will make the decision to interrupt their partner in order to provide solutions, even when their partner never communicated that's what they were needing. Listen to what your partner needs versus imposing what you believe they need.
Interrupting your partner conveys:
- That you are the expert of their life, and you know what's best for them.
- That what they are saying isn't valued as much as your opinion.
Listening without interrupting communicates:
- They are seen, heard, and their experience matters.
- You are committed to understanding them.
3. Be supportive of treatment.
It can be tough holding space for your partner with no formal training. (Heck, even with formal training, it is hard in your personal life!) The best advice I can give you is to seek out services for yourself with a mental health professional, as some of the things that may come up for you may be your own stuff. Dating someone with depression comes with its own share of difficulties, including for the partner without depression.
Plus, seeing you seek treatment will model the behavior for your partner who may have been convinced that only "crazy people" go to therapy. While mental wellness has been at the forefront of conversation this past year due to COVID and pop culture normalizing seeking treatment in rap songs, TV shows, and social media, there is still stigma with caring for and addressing issues in our mental health—especially when it comes to treatment. Your partner may still experience hesitation about seeking treatment such as therapy or medication management. Support them in your words and actions, and they, too, will be the benefactor of autonomous decision-making for one's overall mental health and wellness.
If it feels appropriate, ask your partner how you can help. Deferring to them allows them to dictate what help and support look like for them, instead of you operating on assumption and possibly overstepping their boundaries. If they are amenable to it, helping them compile a list of mental health providers or support groups is a collaborative way to support your partner in what can be an overwhelming season.
4. Respect their right to make their own decisions.
Struggling with mental health and wellness does not automatically render someone incapable of living a full and autonomous life. As a partner, it is crucial to empower your partner to make informed decisions that they believe are best for them. Your support can be the difference between them feeling like they are in a relationship with a parent versus a partner.
Supporting your partner's right to make their own decision can also mean walking with them through the outcomes of that decision even if you did not agree with the decision that was made. Not isolating them will require you to recognize and honor the extent and limits of your control.
While respecting the right to make their own decisions can be challenging, this reinforces to your partner that their struggles do not define them or take away from their voice in your relationship. You are still equal partners.