The recent loss of actor Robin Williams has had the internet buzzing with opinions about mental illness, substance abuse, and suicide. As a couple and family therapist, I thought I’d share some thoughts about how to provide support for a partner who suffers from mental illness and/or addiction. This is definitely a challenging task, and also quite common — about 4% of adults in the US are struggling with a serious mental illness (e.g., mood disorders, anxiety, substance abuse) at any given time.
Being in a relationship with someone suffering from a major mental illness creates a number of challenges. It can make communication difficult, complicate social relationships, and even lead to symptoms in the non-diagnosed spouse. There are several important things to keep in mind to help hold things together and provide (and receive!) the support you need.
- Do whatever you can to facilitate your partner finding the care and help he or she needs. In many cases, this may mean making the appointments yourself, driving your partner to appointments, and going into appointments with him or her so that you can help make sure everything the doctor says is understood.
- If medication is prescribed, help your partner form a solid habit of taking the medication as prescribed. This might mean reminding him or her to take it, helping him or her create a system for taking medication at the right time, etc.
- When symptoms are at a peak, remember that your partner is ill — not cruel, not a bad person, and not purposely attacking you. A mental illness is a chronic condition that requires on going care, regular tweaking of treatment (medication, therapy, etc.), and a great deal of patience.
- You need support, too. It can be draining to be the partner your mentally ill loved one needs, and it’s important that you have reliable sources of support, too. A small group of trusted loved ones, in whom you can confide and to whom you can go when you need to vent or be distracted will do you a world of good. Your supporters should be people with whom you can be totally honest, and who won’t form a negative opinion about your partner based on what you share.
- Encourage your partner to get out and do things he or she enjoys. Don’t be pushy, but be supportive of familiar, enjoyable activities as well as new, potentially exciting ones.
- Provide positive reinforcement for healthy behavior. When your partner does something that will help get him or her out of the illness cycle, make sure to recognize it and give praise. This will increase the likelihood that your partner will continue this behavior and let him or her know that you appreciate his or her efforts. Do this instead of criticizing negative behaviors — positive reinforcement will get you a lot further.
- Acknowledge that you don’t fully understand what your partner is experiencing, but that you want to listen to whatever he or she wants to share. Unless we’ve had a mental health diagnosis ourselves, it’s impossible to truly know what that feels like. But being empathic means putting your own assumptions about what the experience must be like aside, and simply sitting with your partner in his or her own unique experience.
Lindsey Hoskins & Associates provides individual, couple, and family therapy services in downtown Bethesda, MD. Call us at (301) 200-5290 to schedule an appointment.