Supporting a partner with mental health issues
For many of us, mental health is a difficult subject to talk about. When someone has a mental health issue, it can be hard to understand what’s going on, or to know how to talk to them.
But mental health issues can affect relationships with those closest to us, like friends, family, and partners. So, if your partner has a mental health issue, it can be helpful to know what to do.
This article is designed to give you some tips on how to support your partner. It is not a replacement for professional support and, if you are at all concerned, you should consult a doctor or mental health professional as soon as possible.
Depending on the issue, and the severity of the symptoms, mental health issues can lead to changes in behaviour and even personality changes. If your partner is going through something like this, it can be hard to know where to start.
But, with a few simple changes, and some good communication, you can be a real support and can help your partner through the most difficult period - alongside any professional support.
Why is it so tough for a partner?
When your partner is dealing with a mental health issue, the stress can start to take its toll on you too. You may notice difficulties starting to show in your relationship, particularly with communication and support .
Your partner might be feeling sad, tearful, irritable, and exhausted, often for long periods of time. You may also notice changes in appetite and sleeping patterns, and a tendency to withdraw socially. Your partner may also lose interest in things you usually enjoy doing together, including sex .
Your partner’s concentration may also be affected, making it hard for them to enjoy even simple activities like watching TV. As a result of all this, you, the partner, can start to feel depleted too.
But there’s lots you can do to help. Even small behaviour changes can make a big difference. Little things like cooking a healthy meal together; making sure your partner gets to bed on time and gets up in the morning; or going for a walk with your partner, can help .
You could even put together a diary of positive experiences and things you are both grateful for. This is a very simple idea and it can really help you look for the positive moments in your day. It will also give you a reminder of good experiences to look back over, which can be particularly helpful if your partner is struggling to see the bright side .
What part can you play in your partner’s recovery?
You’ll naturally want to do the best for your partner and help them wherever you can. What’s really important is that you consider the long term as well as the short term.
While it might be tempting to protect your partner by taking on extra responsibilities and helping them to avoid difficult social situations, this could actually end up being more damaging in the long term.
Keeping up regular activities can help your partner maintain a level of independence that they risk losing if they become over-reliant on you. Visiting family and friends can help your partner to maintain important social ties, and even find solutions to practical problems . Ask your partner how much support they need but err on the side of encouraging them to stay active.
How do you improve communication?
Good communication becomes particularly important when your partner is struggling with a mental health issue. Research shows that attacking or challenging your partner’s behaviour could make them feel even worse, leading them to become more withdrawn and less confident in their ability to improve things .
Try the following tips to improve communication:
- Drop your judgements. Set aside any preconceptions you have about mental illness so you can approach conversations with an open mind.
- Hold the space. Encourage your partner to talk about their experiences. Let them know you’re there for them.
- Listen. This means listening actively to what your partner is saying, and not thinking about what you are going to say next.
- Acknowledge their feelings. Let your partner know you’ve heard and understood them. Sometimes it’s helpful to repeat back to them what you think you’ve heard so they know you’ve really understood.
You will probably need to exercise a little patience and sensitivity. You may not be able to relate to everything your partner is going through, but just let them know that you’re there to offer support wherever you can .
You can also help by reading up on mental health issues – there is lots of information available online, or you can ask your GP, or local support groups for information. Learning about how mental health can affect your relationship will help you maintain open communication with your partner, and reassure them that you understand what’s going on and are willing to support them.
If in doubt, seek help
You can also play a part in supporting your partner to seek professional help. If you are worried or unsure of what to do, professional help should always be your first step. Your partner’s GP can help and make a referral to a mental health specialist for further support.
If your partner wants extra support, you can go with them to appointments. As part of their treatment, you may be asked to go to couples therapy. This doesn’t mean your relationship is in trouble – it’s just that research has shown couples therapy to be particularly effective with mental health issues. It can also help you find more ways to improve communication and intimacy, and protect against further problems in the future  .
 Hickey, D., Carr, A., Dooley, B., Guerin, S., Butler, E., & Fitzpatrick, L. (2005). Family and marital profiles of couples in which one partner has depression or anxiety. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 31(2), 171-182.
 Jacob, T., & Johnson, S. L. (1997). Parent–child interaction among depressed fathers and mothers: Impact on child functioning. Journal of Family Psychology, 11(4), 391.
 NHS (2010). Couple Therapy for Depression Competency Framework. Available from: http://www.iapt.nhs.uk/silo/files/couple-therapy-for-depression-competency-framework.pdf.
 Bodenmann, G., Plancherel, B., Beach, S. R., Widmer, K., Gabriel, B., Meuwly, N., ... & Schramm, E. (2008). Effects of coping-oriented couples therapy on depression: A randomized clinical trial. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 76(6), 944.
 Baker, L. R., & McNulty, J. K. (2015). Adding insult to injury: Partner depression moderates the association between partner-regulation attempts and partners’ motivation to resolve interpersonal problems. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(6), 839-852.
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