Hi friends! Today I wanted to talk about how to show up for loved ones (or just people in general) that suffer from mental illness. I want to specify that I am taking about mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and other mood-based behavioral mental illnesses because those are the ones I have the most personal experience with. In short, these may not work for everyone and may not meet everyone’s needs – I am totally open to talking about more inclusive ways of interacting with our people with mental illness. These could also be useful for people who don’t suffer too because everyone has bad or tough days right*? I’m not a professional, but these are things I have learned and try to do with my interpersonal relationships, both as someone who suffers from depression and from multiple forms of anxiety and as someone who has dated and generally interacted with people with mental illness.
- Communicate. The biggest piece that is woven through these tips is communication. Not everyone is self-aware or in touch with their needs, but if you or your loved one are, you can discuss them. Like what your needs look like when you’re having a hard time.
- Try not to fix them. I know it is hard to tolerate seeing a loved one in pain or going through a hard time. Our usual response is to do whatever we can to stop the pain right? When you end up trying to fix a person with mental illness, you run the risk of expending energy to meet needs that don’t need to be met and/or creating an unsustainable dependency for the person you are trying to fix. On top of that, the simple fact is that you can’t. But you can cause damage in the process if you try to.
- Check in, sometimes often. So now you have either articulated your needs, heard the needs of your loved one or both. Great! But guess what, these can change and shift so it’s important to check in regularly with yourself and/or the person if you can.
- Negotiate. Sometimes your needs will be in direct conflict with your loved ones needs. Negotiating emotional space for moments when that happens is crucial. Relationships are not always equal and can require us to hold space and love for other people in our relationships even when we have little room for that. Communicating ways to deal with this can help ease expectations you may not be able to meet.
- Set boundaries. And communicate them. Figure out your boundaries about how much support you can lend to your loved one and in what capacity. This is incredibly important if both/all people are dealing with a disability or hardship. If you know you can give little support, consider encouraging and helping this person access other means of support.
- Have a support system. That isn’t exclusively tied to your loved one so that you don’t need to rely on them to meet all of your emotional needs. Having a support system in place gives you something to rely on during struggling times when your loved one can’t show up for you for whatever reasons. This support system can include a network (or even a handful) of people you feel safe coming to, self-soothing techniques that you can use on yourself, or a plan with steps to do to help you reach a more manageable state. Your loved one may see you in ways you can’t so they may have good ideas for your support system too!
- Practice. Practice communicating, checking in, negotiating, self-soothing, reaching out, whatever helps you. And practice ways to not take your loved one’s struggle personally while still giving yourself space to feel your feelings. Depending on what this person struggles with, the severity, the ways it affects them personally, and more, sustaining a relationship with a mentally ill or disabled person can be tough. But not necessarily hopeless.
I struggle a lot with not taking things personally. Because of my giant Leo ego, I tend to go there first when I sense that something is up with people in my life. And also because of that ego, I will internalize it because I don’t want anyone to know I’m having a hard time. I’m learning how to let it out and ask about it, to communicate. I’m also learning that taking things personally hurts myself the most because it’s not about me. Assuming things are about me can create problems that aren’t there and deny people in my life the opportunity to communicate directly. There is a delicate balance between intuition and necessary independence. I know I don’t need to carry that weight unless and until it’s presented to me. This has been an important and necessary lesson.
I hope this list helps you in your partnerships and relationships like it has helped me. If you can think of anything else that I missed or that you think is helpful, I’d love to hear about it!
*This is not to equate dealing with mental illness as the same as having a bad day – although many people with mental illness, myself included, will tell you that some days are ok and some are bad. This can be directly tied to our mental illness or just life – there is generally a difference.