Mental illness can be challenging for couples. Being in a relationship with a person who has a mental illness can involve caring for them while managing your daily chores and making sure you don’t burn out in the process. Ritika Dhaliwalspoke to clinical psychologist Pallavi Tomar to understand how to work on the relationship when one partner has a mental illness. Edited excerpts:
How do I know if my partner is going through depression/anxiety?
With clinical depression, you will generally see a downward trend in their mood. You’ll find them feeling sad a lot more often, persistently, for longer periods of time. You’ll also see that they start losing interest in things that (they) have otherwise enjoyed. Getting tired very easily, their overall psychosocial functioning, in terms of their level of functioning at work, not wanting to really socialize with people — there may be an impairment or difficulty in all those aspects of their life. Or even if they are functioning, they will find it more difficult, and that it takes more effort. Apart from that, in depression, you will see significant changes in their sleep and appetite as well. They may feel more lethargic, hopeless, and experience a sense of worthlessness. These kinds of things might come up in their conversations as well. In certain cases, you may also see the patient talking about self-harm, or that they do not want to live anymore.
Anxiety disorders can manifest in many different ways. One is generalized anxiety disorder in which the person could have free floating anxiety, where anything and everything can cause anxiety in them. This is also accompanied by certain physical symptoms: palpitations, sweating, and tremors. In other manifestations of panic disorder, there are intense episodic experiences of anxiety which are short lived but are quite unnerving for the patient. In fact, in panic disorder, the physical manifestation is a lot more prominent, and leads to feelings of apprehension.
What should I do if my partner is not willing to seek help?
See, I think one thing we need to understand is that seeking help in itself can be quite unnerving — coming to terms with the fact that they have an illness and that they probably need a certain kind of a treatment. So the first thing is to try and understand your partner’s apprehensions, what exactly they are going through and what they are worried about. You should definitely encourage them to seek help, to try and talk to someone. If they are nervous about it, it might be helpful to actually set up a joint session the first time so you can do more of the talking with the clinician. If they don’t want to go in person, you could encourage them to use helplines or online sessions. If all of this fails, I encourage partners to come and meet the clinicians themselves, describe the situation, and maybe then, specific to their unique situation or the problems that they’re facing, the clinicians can guide you better in terms of what to communicate and how to encourage them to come and seek help.
The other thing, and I think this is very important, is to be able to offer love and support. The acceptance that comes from your near and dear ones is very very important to a person with mental illness. So sometimes, just being there is the most important thing.
What can I do to make my partner feel safe and loved?
When you do realize that your partner is experiencing a mental illness, it is very important to educate yourself. I mean, you can’t really do much without knowing what the illness really is, what it entails. So try and understand the symptoms, try and understand the causes, and the treatments that are available for it. Meet the clinicians, meet the team that is working with your partner— that is very essential. Apart from that, it’s also very important to understand your own partner’s experience of the illness because even though symptoms might be very similar, what they feel more daunting, what they feel is more difficult for them, it's very important that you try and understand that.
How should I take care of myself when I spend most of my time taking care of my partner?
Since everybody is focusing on helping the patient feel better, we all forget that primary caregivers — or partners in this case — actually do go through a lot of challenges. They might not really feel equipped enough to deal with it. The first thing i think the partner needs to understand is that they are not the remedy, and they are not the only ones who can single-handedly help cure the patient. Make sure that you create certain spaces for your own self-care. Reach out to friends and family that you can really talk to, because living with a partner sometimes who probably finds it difficult to engage in day-to-day activities, may not want to socialize, or probably doesn’t hold a job, can cause a lot of stress — not just otherwise but within the relationship as well. So make sure you have friends and family you can really reach out to, you can talk to. Take time to do things that you enjoy. Don't shy away from reaching out for professional help as well if you think that things are getting a little too difficult to handle.