So, your partner has opened up to you about their mental health. Maybe they’ve been feeling down and detached for a few months, or they’ve struggled with a diagnosed disorder for a while now. Whatever their situation may be, you’re probably wondering how you can help them on their journey. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources to guide you through the process and keep your relationship healthy at the same time. Here’s how to support your partner’s mental health while also taking care of yourself.
- Encourage them to go to therapy
Often, this is the first and most important step in supporting someone who is dealing with mental health challenges. Just like you’d see a doctor for a physical illness, seeking professional help can be a great option for addressing mental health.
“It is healthy for your partner to have other sources of emotional support,” says Dr. Bryan Bruno, MD, Medical Director at Mid City TMS and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. He tells Her Campus, “While reassuring them of your love and their positive qualities helps redistribute the emotional labor of support, know that you may not be able to help them…[or] you can only be helpful up to a certain point.”
Asking for help can be overwhelming, so if making an appointment feels daunting for your partner, consider staying in the room with them when they call the therapist’s office and potentially accompanying them to their first session. If your partner is worried about financing therapy, there are plenty of free and low-cost options available — and your school may also offer free therapy at your college counseling center.
Laura*, a student at Boston University, says that you shouldn’t bear the responsibilities of a mental health professional for your partner. “It’s important to remember that you cannot fill the role of a therapist,” she tells Her Campus. “You can support [your partner] as best as you can and be there for them, but it is not fair to you to act as their therapist.”
Anna, a student at The Paris Institute of Political Studies, says that “giving” too much in the relationship can be dangerous, and eventually it can take a significant toll on your own mental health. She recommends being honest with your partner about how you’re feeling and not walking on eggshells around them. She tells Her Campus, “If you have to give too much [in the relationship], it might just drain you. It’s okay to be frustrated and voice that; it’s part of any relationship.”
- research their diagnosis & lISTEN TO THEIR NEEDS
Mental illness is often invisible, so it’s crucial to figure out what symptoms your partner may be experiencing and how best to address them. For example, if your partner lives with depression, it may be helpful to remind them of their strengths, plan fun activities to look forward to, and help them identify what went “well” at the end of the day. If your partner is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, they could probably use a practical plan to address their concerns — like what to do if they miss the bus or how to navigate anxiety related to schoolwork. Everyone needs something different in the moment, and different tactics work for different people.
Dr. Bruno tells Her Campus that understanding your partner’s needs is key in knowing how to support them. “Listen to your partner, and know how they like to be supported,” he says. “Instead of spending mental energy guessing what they need, ask constructive questions like, ‘Do you need to vent or to find solutions?’ This prevents miscommunication that can lead to frustrating conflict.” Plus, your partner will be grateful later on when they don’t have to reexplain what they’re going through.
Check out resources like the American Psychological Association (APA), Psychology Today, books, blogs, websites, and subreddits to hear from mental health professionals and people with mental illness. But don’t forget that at the end of the day, everyone’s experience is different, so the golden rule is to listen to your partner — it’ll help you understand what their unique needs are.
“I’ve been in a relationship while dealing with a mental illness, and I know that it can be very hard for both sides,” Laura tells Her Campus. “The best thing you can do is to just be there for your partner. Even if it’s just sitting with them or listening while they talk, it can make a big difference.”
- Practice self-care, FIND SUPPORT, & CONSIDER EXPLORING THERAPY
Supporting a partner dealing with mental health issues can become taxing, especially if you abandon your self-care routine or forget to implement one in the first place. It’s essential to tend to your own needs, keep exploring your passions, eat well, sleep enough, and exercise regularly. Take time to unwind and recharge — go on a walk, head to the movie theater, read a good book, meditate. You may even want to consider getting therapy for yourself as you navigate the challenges of dating someone with mental illness.
According to Dr. Bruno, self-care can also mean setting healthy boundaries within your relationship. You may be used to being in touch or spending time together all the time, but Dr. Bruno says it can help to change your communication habits or take a step away from constant communication for a moment if you need. He tells Her Campus, “While communication is important, getting comfortable asking for time apart will calm your mind and avoid the formation of toxic or codependent habits. This is also a good time to establish boundaries for yourself.”
Nazly Ramadan, a student at Boston University, recognizes that it can be difficult to see someone struggling, and not know what to do to help them. Taking time for self-care can help alleviate some of these feelings and help you cope.
“If you love someone, it hurts to see them hurting,” she tells Her Campus. “Sometimes, the anxiety can affect you too and make you anxious. Take special time to do things that improve your mental health — whatever self-care means to you — not only face masks and baths.”
Laura agrees that self-care can help you help your partner in the long run. “It’s essential to make sure that you are okay first and foremost,” she tells Her Campus. “If you are not taking care of yourself, it is really hard to help others.”
- Remind your partner of their strengths
Whether you’re dealing with generalized mental health issues or a diagnosed mental illness, the experience has a way of leaving you feeling defenseless and depleted of energy. For example, it can be difficult for people with a mental illness to remember how resilient and amazing they are. Compliments can help boost your partner’s confidence regardless of their mental state, but they’re especially helpful when their self-esteem is low.
“It’s important to reassure your partner that you care about them, whether verbally or through behavior, because mental illness can make you feel isolated or like a burden,” Laura tells Her Campus.
Remind your partner of their qualities — whether emotional, intellectual, or physical. Tell them how great they’re doing by pointing to what is going well because of actions they’ve taken and efforts they’ve made. For instance, if your partner has been struggling to hand in missing assignments and ends up submitting one, congratulate them and offer to celebrate the occasion with a sweet treat or an afternoon in the park. If your partner isn’t feeling comfortable or confident about their appearance, pay attention to their new outfit or give them a compliment on their hairstyle. A confidence boost can go a long way in making your partner feel in charge of their well-being and life.
Additionally, avoid getting hung up on labels that carry significant weight and negative connotations — for example, don’t refer to your partner as “anxious” or “depressed.” Although your partner’s mental illness may have very real consequences on their mood and behavior, your partner is not their mental illness and it is crucial to show them that they are still the person you fell for.
- Pick up healthy habits together
It’s easier to start something together than alone, so offer to pick up healthy habits with your partner. Try going on weekly runs together and prepare nutritious meals at home to get used to caring for yourselves! Not only will it help to make the activity less overwhelming for your partner, it’s also a great way to spend quality time together.
- Don’t make their mental health journey the sole focus of your relationship
Mental illness can easily consume your relationship, so be adamant about not letting it take up all of the space in your conversations. Work on other aspects of your relationship, spend quality time together, go on dates, and show your appreciation and admiration for your partner.
“Remembering your own boundaries when supporting a partner’s mental health is a difficult task,” Dr. Bruno tells Her Campus. “When you care about someone, you may want to fix all their problems, but the complex nature of mental illness makes this impossible.”
Remember, it’s not your responsibility to fix your partner. Only they are responsible for their own progress, but you can support and empower them as they learn strategies to cope. It’s important to set up boundaries to avoid codependency — when you and your partner can’t function on your own and your thinking and behavior are instead organized around each other. Make it a point to honor your own needs. You want to be patient with your partner but recognize that your needs should be met for the relationship to continue.
Dr. Bryan Bruno, Medical Director at Mid City TMS
Laura*, Boston University
Anna, The Paris Institute of Political Studies
Nazly Ramadan, Boston University
*Name has been changed.