Part of what makes mental health issues so challenging is that they are often invisible.
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When you or a loved one are living with a mental health disorder, there may be no visible physical signs. Instead, the symptoms are internal and hidden beneath the surface.
For this reason, it’s often difficult for friends or family to understand the nature of the illness or why it can be so debilitating.
As a result, it may not be easy or comfortable talking about mental health, even with your spouse. However, you’re not alone.
Mental illness is more common than most people may think. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five U.S. adults experiences a mental health disorder in a given year, with the most common conditions being anxiety, followed by depression.
Whether you are living with a spouse with mental illness, or you yourself are suffering, it’s important to talk about mental health. It might seem not easy at first, both to explain and to understand.
So, how to help someone with mental illness? How to talk about mental illness or mental health?
Here are several tips to help you start talking about mental health with your spouse.
1. Recognize common symptoms of mental health disorders
At first, your spouse might not directly tell you about their mental health issues. In some cases, they might not even recognize their mental health is suffering.
If you begin to notice changes in their behavior and think they might be struggling with a mental illness, try to note of the following symptoms:
Persistent mood swings
Excessive and unrealistic worries with little or no explanation
Inability to concentrate or complete tasks at work or school
Persistent lack of energy
Inability to get excited about things in life
Unexplained changes in sleep patterns or feelings of fatigue
While the symptoms of mental illness vary, these are all common signs of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.
If your loved one is displaying multiple symptoms over several days or weeks, it might be time to broach the subject and have a conversation about their mental health.
2. Be open and honest
Whether you’re talking about your mental health or that of your spouse, honesty is important.
It may be uncomfortable and challenging opening up, but hiding your feelings from your loved one will cause more harm in the long term.
You should both allow each other to speak freely and to remain non-judgmental.
One of the first things you should do while talking about mental health is, set aside enough time to have a full discussion.
You’ll both need time to understand each other’s feelings and to express how you or your spouse’s mental health is affecting your relationship.
Even if there are pauses or moments of silence during the conversation, don’t feel the need to fill that silence. Allow each other time to process thoughts.
If your spouse is struggling with their mental health, you might feel compelled to press the point, get answers, or “fix” their condition then and there.
However, it takes time to get better, and pushing the conversation can be counterproductive. Instead, listen to your partner, be patient, and give them the time they need.
4. Come prepared with questions
It can help to come into the conversation prepared with questions. Asking questions can help you gain a better understanding of how your spouse is feeling.
Besides, questions can show you’re taking them seriously and are concerned about their mental health. If your spouse is having difficulty communicating, questions can also help guide the conversation.
Examples of questions you might ask include:
Can you describe how you’re feeling?
How long have you felt like this?
Did something happen before you began feeling this way?
How can I help you?
Give your spouse the time they need to think and answer. Likewise, if your partner is asking you questions, remember that you don’t have to answer every question.
Sometimes you might not know how to answer them, or simply may not have an answer.
5. Reassure them that you love them and care about them
When living with a mental illness, it can become easy to feel like you’re a burden on others in your life, especially your partner.
If your spouse starts talking about their mental health, one of the first things you can do is to reassure them that you love them and are there to support them.
Reassurance and support can go a long way to help your partner feel comfortable engaging in future open, honest communication with you.
Additionally, showing your love and support can help them overcome any initial worries or reluctance to seek treatment for their mental health.
6. Speak to a mental health professional and seek treatment
Taking care of your mental health can already be a challenge, but it becomes even more challenging when living with a mental illness. Fortunately, you and your spouse are not alone.
There are several available treatment options, including therapy, medication, or a combination of both.
Seeking help might initially feel like a daunting task, but finding treatment for yourself or your partner is the first step in getting better. Take the time to talk together about treatment and how you can support your spouse throughout the process.
It may be helpful to attend therapy with your partner, especially in cases when mental health is placing strain on your relationship. In some cases, it may even become necessary to seek couples or marriage therapy.
Watch this video to understand the importance of talking about mental health.
7. Understand that it takes time to get better
Talking about mental health is not as easy as it seems. Mental illness can have several causes, and it might take you long to decipher the exact reason.
Sometimes it’s situational, like a major life change or loss of a loved one. Other times, there is a family history of mental illness, and the root cause is genetic.
Regardless of the reason, it takes time to get better. If you or your spouse are seeking treatment, it can take time to find the right medication or therapy.
While it may be easy to feel frustrated, you must be patient and supportive.
Finding the right treatment often takes time alongside a little trial and error. It’s important not to try to rush the recovery process.
If your partner is undergoing treatment without initial success, this doesn’t mean you are failing them in any way. Continue to remain supportive and check in with them regularly.
8. Continue the conversation
Your initial conversation with your spouse is vital in creating a sense of trust and support, but the discussion should be ongoing as the treatment process.
Do not stop talking about mental health with your spouse. Regularly check in with your spouse about their mental health and treatment.
While it’s essential to give them the space they need, involving yourself in their treatment helps show your support.
It’s also important to know that your spouse might come to you themselves for talking about mental health.
Do your best to be open to this and available. It can even help to plan times to speak in the future.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Dan Gellman is the Director of High Focus Centers, a provider of outpatient treatment programs for mental health disorders, substance use disorders, and eating disorders. For 25 years, High Focus Centers has provided holistic, evidence-based treatment to help clients achieve long-term wellness.