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What’s the best way to support a partner who struggles with their mental health?

Relationships are hard enough at times, but how do you cope when one of you is suffering from poor mental health?

At any one time, a sixth of the population in England aged 16 to 64 have a mental health problem, according to NHS Digital.

What is the best way to support your partner if they’re suffering and what should you expect from your other half if you’re the one struggling?

BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour spoke to Linda Gask, who’s had 30 years of experience as a psychiatrist in the NHS; journalist and author Poorna Bell, who’s written about her late husband’s struggle with depression and addiction; Nicole Krystal Crentsil, co-founder of Black Girl Festival; and Alan Phillips and his wife Karen. Alan has suffered with severe depression in the past.

They shared their advice for coping with mental health in a relationship.

Linda Gask’s advice

Linda Gask is a retired psychiatrist with 30 years experience working in the NHS. She has also written about her own personal experience of depression.

Be considerate

“Show how much you really care and be supportive.
“Try and encourage them to set small goals but not try and achieve the impossible.
“Instead, keeping as active as possible, taking exercise, doing previously enjoyable things they may have stopped doing, can all help and you might try and do them together.”

Try to be a good listener

“It can be hard especially if your partner starts talking about things that concern you and you want to answer them back.
“Encourage them to open up and share what is troubling them - it can take some time.”

Encourage your partner to seek help

“Support them through the process - as much as they want you to be involved.
“You really cannot be your partner’s therapist, but make sure they are not playing down their experiences and failing to get the right help.
“Self-medicating with alcohol and other substances can make things worse rather than better.”

Be aware and notice the kind of things that can trigger anxiety and depression

“Learn what their early warning signs are, such as not sleeping, drinking heavily, being irritable, feeling exhausted.
“Try to get in early and ask how they are, but don’t confront them or get into an argument.
“However if they can admit that something is wrong that’s the first step in getting through it.”

Look after yourself

“It can be very difficult and stressful being with someone who is depressed and anxious.
“Try to delay talking with them about what effect it is having on you until they are feeling well enough to have a conversation about it. Don’t ignore your own health.”

Alan and Karen Phillips’ advice

Alan has suffered with severe depression in the past. Alan thanks his wife Karen for pulling him through his mental illness.

Talk about mental health in a style that suits you

Alan: “The style that suited me was texting my wife because as a man I’m not that good at talking.
“It was much easier to text her how I felt and also having an agreed protocol where she would come back and say certain things to me.
“I’d say ‘I’m having a dreadful, awful day’, and she would just come back and say ‘OK, I love you’.
“It just made be feel better. It doesn’t sound great but honestly it works.”

Ask your partner how they are feeling

Karen: “As a carer or someone who is living with someone with a mental illness, it’s very important to ask them how they are feeling because it’s very, very difficult and daily life is busy, so you miss things.
“It’s important to ask them how they are feeling, especially if you see anything that you think is a trigger.”

Ask medical professionals how to cope with a partner with a mental illness

Karen: “When you become involved with the medical professionals, talk to them, ask them questions, ask to meet them.
“They won’t necessarily offer, but when you ask, they are absolutely brilliant.
“My experience was that they were keen to answer all my questions, they were keen to give me advice, and they wanted stuff for me.
“So then you feel more engaged in [your partner’s] care programme.”

Keep on going

Karen: “It’s very difficult to live with somebody who is acutely mentally ill. You do feel sometimes yourself that you don’t want to carry on with it.
“It’s about keeping on going and when you get to your front door, take a deep breath and walk in, and keep on supporting and keep on helping as best you can.”

Keep yourself well

Karen: “It’s not easy, so keeping yourself well is really important.
“Keep the normality in your world. Do your normal routine as best as you can because it’s helpful to you, but it’s also helpful for the person you’re looking after that’s unwell.
“If they see normality, it gives them some parameters to help them to improve and get well.”

Support your partner in every possible way

Karen: “Obviously the best thing will be if the person you love gets better as quickly as possible.
“It’s about supporting them in every possible way that you can to do that.
“If they are unwilling to go and see medical professionals, really encourage them, go with them, do anything you can so they can get the best help.”

Nicole Krystal Crentsil’s advice

Nicole Krystal Crentsil is co-founder of Black Girl Festival. She suffers from anxiety. She and her boyfriend have been dating for roughly 18 months.

Have patience

“By patience, it means really understanding that this person is going through something.
“You have to really learn to become a patient person or learn to be less impatient in the way in which you deal with them.”

Take care of yourself

“It’s really easy to get so engulfed in this other person’s wellbeing, that sometimes you forget your own.
“So whatever you need to do to practice self-care, to really look after yourself, it’s something I’d definitely advise.”

Realise that you can’t fix this person

“You really want the best for them, you love them, you care for them, and like anything, you want to fix it. There’s a problem and you want a solution, and it’s not that easy.
“This person is going to go through whatever they are going to go through, and you being with them and loving them and caring for them is probably one of the best ways you can support them.
“Realise you can’t fix it straight away.”

It’s important to seek help

“It’s really important to seek help where you see fit.
“For some people, it’s speaking to someone more professional, for others, it’s actually seeking really serious professional help.
“It’s really important to advise that person to seek help but also to support them in the encouragement to go and do it.”

Remember why you’re together

“Celebrate that. Loving each other and caring for someone is so crucial because this person probably feels like you are going to leave them because you have this problem, or they are going to feel guilty or slightly ashamed for bringing this problem into your relationship.
“But it’s really important to celebrate and love and care for this person, the same way you would before this has come into your relationship.
“It’s understanding that it isn’t a burden for your relationship as it is for that person. It’s also understanding that it’s something they are going through and they need your love and care to support them through it.”

Poorna Bell’s advice

Journalist and author Poorna Bell has written about her late husband’s struggle with depression and addiction. She was with her late husband, Rob, for six years. He took his own life in 2015.

Mental illness can be physical

“Understand that it’s called a mental illness, but it also has physical ramifications.
“I think my understanding of depression was really poor, I just thought it was something that made you feel bad. I didn’t realise that it also physically made you unable to do certain things.
“With my partner, I didn’t realise that sometimes when he couldn’t come with me to the supermarket, that it wasn’t because he was being lazy, or because he didn’t want to, it was because he physically couldn’t get out of bed and bring himself to leave the house to do it.
“I think had I had a proper understanding of that, it may have made me less resentful, rather than just clumping to the shops and doing it on my own and being a bit crabby about it.”

You have to do your own thing

“When it comes to mental illness, there’s so much you want to do for your partner because you don’t want to see them suffering and going through it.
“A lot of the times it may make you want to stay at home and to be physically next to them.
“What that ends up doing, is it means that a lot of your personal passions or hobbies, or just even hanging out with your mates, just falls by the wayside because you’re trying to spend all of your time with your partner.
“The important thing to remember is that when you’re caring for someone very ill, or even when you’re in a relationship with someone when they are in recovery and they are doing fine, is that if you aren’t looking after yourself as a person, it really erodes your ability to be empathetic, and then be kind.
“It may seem selfish to go off and do your own thing, but in the long run, it ends up making you a much better person and able to support them in a more loving way."

Have a confidante

“Have a confidante, have someone you can talk to.
"Once I started to have therapy, I was so much more in control of my own feelings, I felt less anxious about things.
“But more importantly I had someone who was completely unbiased who I could talk to.”

Help with admin

“In a relationship, admin is one of the things you argue about.
“Let’s say with depression, Rob found it really hard to do things like open his post, or even send people invoices for work he had done. At the time, I didn’t realise how much he was struggling with it.
“He would just let it build up in the background and just completely turn this thing that was actually quite small, into something that was completely out of control.
“I think it’s actually quite a practical thing to just offer to help someone out when they are struggling a bit.
“If both of you can overcome your pride about that stuff, it goes a long way to mitigating a lot of the arguments that happen down the line.”

You can listen to the full Woman’s Hour discussion on coping with mental health in a relationship here.

You can find more information and support on the issues in this article via the Mental Health Foundation, the NHS, Mind, Relate, NHS - addiction, Action on Addiction and Addaction.