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Mental Health

How To Support A Partner With Mental Illness In College

According to the American Psychological Association (APA)*, depression and anxiety are among the most common mental health challenges for college students today. And if you’re dating someone who struggles with anxiety, depression, or mental illness, the situation can be confusing and difficult for both of you. While it’s always a good idea to encourage your partner to see a therapist, there are other things you can do to help them feel safe and loved. Here’s what to do if your partner has anxiety and depression, according to a psychiatrist and college women who have been there. 

encourage them to see a therapist

While you can definitely be there for your partner in just about every way possible, unfortunately, you can’t give them the professional help they need. Psychiatrist and author Carole Lieberman, MD, MPH tells Her Campus, “The most important thing that you can do for an anxious or depressed partner is to persuade them to see the importance of getting into psychotherapy. Otherwise, the situation could get out of control. You cannot be their therapist if you are their romantic partner.”

While it can be difficult to accept that you can’t always give your partner everything, what you can do for a depressed or anxious partner is reassure them that there’s no shame in seeking help. Talking to a professional is crucial for anyone’s mental health (you may even want to seek therapy yourself!), plus, it can also help a relationship when both partners are committed to their well-being. 

support them & ask for help if you need

If you are not depressed or anxious yourself, it can be difficult to understand what’s going on with your partner. However, there are still ways to support them during the challenges they’re experiencing.

“[Your partner] may seem distant at times, and they may often be feeling down for no reason, which are both frustrating circumstances to observe,” says Helmi Henkin, a junior at the University of Alabama. “The main advice I would give to someone whose SO struggles with mental health issues is to support them no matter what.” 

On the other hand, it’s really important that you don’t confuse supporting your partner and enabling any unhealthy — or even destructive — behaviors they might engage in. Dr. Lieberman tells Her Campus, “You can support [your partner] in the sense of letting them know that you are not judging them and want to make sure they get help, but you can’t [always] support them ‘no matter what,’” she says.

For example, if your partner is experiencing depression, they might turn to potentially harmful coping mechanisms that may not be the best route for their health. As their partner, it’s good to be aware that this is a possibility, and be ready (or at least informed enough) to respond in potentially difficult situations. “For example, if a depressed partner wants to [drink] alcohol every night or talks about being suicidal, but refuses to get help, you can’t simply support them,” Dr. Lieberman explains. “You may need to alert someone who can get your partner help — such as [their] parents, the dorm RA, the mental health service at your school or 911.” The bottom line: you are never alone, and there is always support available.

affirm that their feelings are valid

People who struggle with anxiety and depression can sometimes experience “irrational” emotions or fluctuating moods. Sometimes, your partner may even recognize this, too — but understand that it doesn’t make their feelings any less real or valid! 

“Anxiety is super frustrating for me because I don’t even understand it myself,” says Clara*, a junior at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s really difficult to try to explain something to my partner that I don’t even understand. So the best thing for him to do is not to try to understand the anxiety, but to understand how it makes me feel. It’s important that he respects how I’m feeling, even if it makes him frustrated or annoyed.”

Dr. Lieberman says that one of the best ways to understand your partner is to try to relate to what is upsetting them. “You can validate your partner’s feelings — for example, if they have had a major disappointment, you can empathize with how sad that would make anyone feel,” she says. “Or if they are under a lot of stress to do well in school or work to support themselves, you can empathize with how anxious that would make you feel, too.” Validating your partner’s emotions can be a powerful way of showing you care, even if you aren’t experiencing the emotions from anxiety or depression firsthand.

Remind them that you care

People who are anxious or depressed can sometimes feel like they are alone in the world. “Remind [your partner] how much you care about them and be there for them as much as possible,” Helmi tells Her Campus. “Even if they ask you for validation that you love them multiple times a day, please give it to them, because chances are, there are voices in their head telling them that no one likes them and they are better off alone, or worse.”

Another difficult thing about anxiety and depression is that sometimes, that isolation and challenging emotions lead people to withdraw from people close to them. And if your partner struggles with mental health, that can mean that they may isolate themselves from you, too. “My boyfriend has depression and I’m actually the only girl who has stuck with him through it,” says Lexie*, a junior at Boston University. “Any time he would go through his bouts, girls would be like, ‘You’re too depressing, bye.’ And that is disheartening! I understand depression is a disease and someone can’t just ‘get over it.’”

Dr. Lieberman agrees. “When someone is feeling depressed or anxious, they often fear that their partner will leave them because they’re no fun to be around,” she says. “So, reminding them that you care goes a long way.” While dealing with anxiety and depression can be difficult, sticking with your partner through it all — the good times and not-so-good — can mean much more than you think.

Listen without “fixing”

When it comes to mental health, especially common challenges like depression and anxiety, there’s often not much you can do or say specifically that will make your partner feel better. In some cases, the best thing to do is to simply lend them an ear and a shoulder to cry on. “What I have learned to do is be supportive of [my boyfriend] and just listen,” Lexie tells Her Campus. “When [my partner] has his ‘meltdowns,’ or when his depression ‘hits’ him, I just listen. His mood will gradually get better and that means the world to me, because I just want him to be happy.”

Dr. Lieberman tells Her Campus that it’s incredibly important to simply listen without trying to “fix” your partner. She says, “Even though you can’t be as objective as a psychotherapist, and should not try to play that role, you can help just by listening!”

Being in a relationship with someone who deals with anxiety or depression is far from easy, but fortunately, there are many things you can do to support them. Always encourage your partner to speak to a licensed psychologist, or even reach out to a resource like Crisis Text Line, where your partner can get connected with a trained counselor 24/7 for free. There are also platforms like Psychology Today, where you can locate and reach out to therapists in your area, and get connected to someone who can help. Supporting your loved one can be tough, but it isn’t impossible. Remember to take care of yourself too, and always ask for help if you need it!

Experts

Carole Liberman, MD, MPH

Sources

Clara*, a junior at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

Helmi Henkin, a junior at the University of Alabama

Lexie*, a junior at Boston University

*Names have been changed. 

Studies

Psychology Topics: Depression (2021). American Psychological Association (APA). Retrieved from www.apa.org.

Iris was the associate editor at Her Campus. She graduated from UCLA with a degree in communications and gender studies, but was born and raised in France with an English mother. She enjoys country music, the color pink and pretending she has her life together. Iris was the style editor and LGBTQ+ editor for HC as an undergrad, and has interned for Cosmopolitan.com and goop. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @irisgoldsztajn, or check out her writing portfolio here.
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