Loving Someone with Mental Illness: How to Be Supportive
I recently woke up feeling ashamed and guilt-ridden; an outburst from the night before left me sobbing for hours and in a full-blown panic attack. I let my borderline personality disorder retake the driver’s seat, and I couldn’t regulate my emotions in a moment of distress. My new boyfriend, Sam, had made it clear to me how much he did not like these dramatic nights. I self-sabotaged again; my fear of losing the relationship caused me to act irrational, and now my relationship appeared to be crumbling before my eyes. I was dreading having to explain my behavior from the night before. But instead of trying to rehash the outburst, Sam turned off the basketball game, looked at me, and said, “I want to learn about borderline personality disorder.”
In my experience, there’s no better feeling than when a loved one wants to understand how to best support you in your journey with mental illness. 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness each year, and only 60% of people with mental illness get mental health care. With or without treatment, the individual needs family members and loved ones to rely on as a support system.
If your significant other is living with a mental illness, here are eight ways you can positively support them.
Supporting a Significant Other with a Mental Illness
Do not deny or downplay the diagnosis. It takes a lot of courage and vulnerability for anyone to talk about their mental health. They should be met with compassion and encouragement. Be careful about how you discuss mental illness. Telling someone they’re “not normal,” “crazy,” or “wrong” for feeling or behaving the way they do will likely only make matters worse.
Educate yourself on your partner’s specific mental illness. If your loved one sees a psychiatrist, they can recommend books or online resources to learn more. The National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America are two resources with trustworthy information on symptoms and treatments for mental illnesses.
Encourage treatment. Unfortunately, you cannot “fix” your loved one’s mental illness on your own. What you can do is encourage them to seek treatment with a medical professional. Treatment requires your partner to put in the work. As a long-term OCD & BPD sufferer, cognitive behavioral therapy, and dialectical behavioral therapy helped me manage my disorders. A psychiatrist or psychologist will help your partner determine the treatment that’s best for them.
Regulate your own emotions. Avoid the urge to react immediately. Find a time to talk when you are both calm and able to openly communicate efficiently.
Validate your partner’s feelings. Even if you don’t completely understand what your partner is going through, validation is an important tool to help your significant other feel less alone. Try to find one aspect of what is triggering them, their behavior, or their emotions that you can validate.
Ask how you can help. You may be looking for solutions to a problem while your partner simply wants someone to listen. Or maybe you’re giving them attention when they would prefer space.
Create a positive distraction. If there’s one particular thing triggering your partner, you might try distracting them from their trigger. Encourage them to do something that heightens their other senses; this might be watching a movie, eating their favorite food, or taking care of a pet.
Take care of your own emotions. If your own mental health isn’t in good shape, you won’t be prepared to handle the challenges that might come along with someone else’s mental illness. Prioritize yourself and set healthy boundaries to ensure you’re the best support system you can be.
The desire to know more about your partner’s mental illness shows that you recognize there might be challenges but are committed to the relationship and committed to supporting them. That alone speaks volumes.
Brittany Potter is a mental health advocate, digital marketer and world traveler. She recently founded the Show Up Series, an event series around mental health, body positivity and self-love. Her passion is to create a safe space for people to Show Up and celebrate themselves.