The Relationship Guide to Caring for Your Partner's Mental Health

How to help your partner and yourself.

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Photos by Unplash, Design by Tiana Crispino

Chances are, you, your significant other, or someone very close to both of you is suffering from a mental-health condition. In fact, an estimated one in five U.S. adults are currently living with a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health

Thankfully, the stigma around discussing mental health is finally coming to a close—a goal that professionals have been working hard to accomplish and lobby for over several decades. The coronavirus pandemic has also most certainly cast a well-deserved spotlight on how mental-health conditions affect people of all ages, races, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and circumstances. 

“The reality is we all have mental health, and we do better when we acknowledge it and take care of it,” says Paula Wilbourne, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Sibly. “We worry so much about taking care of our bodies and our skin. Our mental health deserves the same level of attention and transparency.”

Mental-health issues certainly don't just disappear when you're in a relationship. In fact, they could worsen significantly. Relationships often can bring on stress since being in a committed union means consideration for another person, learning how to compromise, and dealing with conflict that naturally arises in partnerships, explains Desreen N. Dudley, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist at Teladoc, a global leader in virtual care. “Dealing with relationship issues when a person already struggles with mental illness can feel overwhelming and increase depression and unhappiness, especially in an unhealthy and unsupportive relationship,” she says. 

Caring for your partner’s mental health can be challenging

Unless you are someone with a background in mental-health treatment (and even when you are), it can be very difficult to fully understand or know how to respond to a partner’s needs, explains Allison Chase, Ph.D., psychologist and regional director at Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center in Austin. “Often times, in turn, the partner who is struggling is often unable to communicate or express their needs, which further complicates the dynamic that exists,” she says. 

As an adult in a relationship, you are in charge of your own mental health.

It’s well understood by professionals in the mental-health space that to be happy and free of emotional burdens is a choice that lies within the individual. “No other human can be a burden to you unless you choose for them to be,” explains Gbubemi Uwaifo, LPC, owner and service provider at Affirm Wellness in Decatur, Georgia. “The journey of healing and being mentally fit is a personal one, so a partner should not be burdened with their partner's mental health or mental illness.” She does, however, emphasize that significant others can play an integral role in aiding the mental-health healing of their partner by showing compassion and care. The key is to make sure you’re simultaneously keeping a close eye on your own mental health through the process. 

“It’s like flying in an airplane—the flight attendants always counsel us to put our oxygen masks on first before we try to help others, which is true in relationships, too,” says Dr. Wilbourne. “When we forget to do a temp check on our own emotions, stress, and habits, it impacts our mental health and our close relationships.”

Here's How To Know Your Partner Is Suffering With Mental Health

If your partner hasn’t expressed to you that they suffer from a mental-health condition, you might be wondering how you can even tell in the first place. Here, experts share the key signs that your partner may be suffering from unaddressed mental health issues:

Social Withdrawal Or Isolation

If your partner is usually quite social, but lately have been particularly disconnected from you as well as others in their life, it may be a sign that something more serious is going on, explains Dr. Dudley. “Individuals need socialization and a feeling of connectedness and belonging. This is gained through interacting with others,” she says. “Desire to be alone and not openly communicating with others as one normally would is a major sign of depression, as well as many other mental-health conditions.”

Significant Mood Changes

We all go through periods of moodiness—maybe one day we’re feeling particularly uplifted and the next we’re down in the dumps. But, it’s usually in response to specific experiences in life. Drastic shifts in mood, however, such as feelings of irritability or increased energy that change to sadness, apathy, and low motivation and disinterest in activities, is a sign that your partner may be struggling with mental-health issues, warns Dr. Dudley. “These mood changes are even more significant if it is out of the normal behavior for your partner,” she says.

Changes In Functioning

Mental health affects nearly every aspect of our functioning, including social, occupational, and emotional states, Dr. Dudley points out. As such, if you notice that your partner’s becoming less capable of carrying out important daily activities, such as decreased motivation at work or disinterest in basic self care, this may be a sign that they are struggling with mental-health issues.

Any Kind Of Addictions

If your partner has any kind of addictions—whether it’s drinking, gambling, or even excessive technology use—Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D., a NYC-based psychotherapist, warns that it may signal that something deeper is going on, especially if it’s a new development. “People can cope with their mental-health issues in a variety of ways, and some can choose to mediate their symptoms with other coping mechanisms as opposed to actually addressing them,” she says.

How To Care For Your Partner’s Mental Health

Though it’s not your job to treat your partner’s mental health conditions in any way, you can be an integral support system. Here are some ways you can help.

Get Educated

First and foremost, Dr. Dudley recommends seeking out ways you can better understand your partner’s mental health issues and diagnosis. “Educate yourself by either reading material on the internet. Or, if your partner is being treated by a mental health professional, be involved in treatment,” she says. “Ask for signs that your partner’s mental-health condition may be worsening.”

Listen To Your Partner

You don’t need a degree in psychology to be considered a good listener. Dr. Dudley recommends reminding your partner that you are there for them and that they can come to you to talk about their feelings and emotions. When they do, it’s important to be free from judgement and avoid dismissing them in any way. “While you can support your partner by helping to come up with solutions to problems, understand that listening with the goal of understanding can go a longer way than trying to fix perceived problems by telling them what they should do,” she says. “Mental illness is complex, and this is usually not the way that mental-health issues resolve.”

Acknowledge You Can't Fix Everything

It’s very important to recognize that mental illness and psychological struggles are genuine, meaning they have both biological as well as environmental roots. Therefore, one should never assume that their partner can just ‘make it all go away,’” explains Dr. Chase. “Recognizing this will allow for more empathy and understanding, and in return, better support for your partner’s distress and struggles.”

Help Your Partner Find Care

Whether it’s individual therapy, group therapy, a treatment facility, or seeing a psychiatrist to consider medication, Dr. Chase recommends that people play a key role in facilitating their partner’s journey to recovery. She does, however, point out the importance of ensuring that the support or treatment is provided by professionals licensed in that individual’s state with professional training and experience in your partner's specific issues.

Nurture Your Relationship

“Being in a relationship with someone with mental health issues can feel all-encompassing,” Dr. Dudley, explains. “There may be times in the relationship where most of the time is spent focusing on managing a partner’s emotional well-being.” During the process of offering support, she urges partners not to lose sight of what attracted them to their partner in the first place. “Build in quality time to participate in shared activities, discuss goals and dreams for the relationship, and go on romantic dates and getaways that create a healthy balance where both partners can enjoy the benefits of being in a relationship,” she says.

Engage In Your Own Self Care

To be a positive support for a partner struggling with mental-health issues, Dr. Dudley urges the importance of prioritizing your own mental health and wellness by getting good rest, eating a healthy diet, and participating in regular physical activity. It’s also helpful to remember to participate in activities you enjoy, even if they don’t include your partner. “Supporting a partner with mental illness by joining them for couples’ therapy is great, but seeking your own mental health treatment is important, as well,” she says. “There are support groups for individuals caring for loved ones with mental illness that can be beneficial to attend.”

Create Your Own Support System

It is wise for both of you to have additional support systems outside of your relationship if you feel your mental-health needs should be the focus. “If your partner is struggling with their own mental health issues, having other relationships that you can rely on for comfort and support, such as positive relationships with friends or family or support groups, can be helpful for you both,” says Dr. Dudley.

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