Having a meaningful conversation with your partner about mental health

For many people dealing with mental health concerns, their condition and feelings of isolation are so interconnected it can be hard to figure out which is the cause and which is the effect. In reality, it’s usually both. Conditions like depression can cause feelings of isolation even when you’re surrounded by your friends, family, and partner. In turn, feeling isolated can make depression worse.

In either case, reaching out for support is a key step toward seeking treatment. Support can come from many different directions – old friends, coworkers, parents, siblings – but two people who should be a part of your mental health support system are your healthcare provider and your partner.

Talking to your partner about mental health

As important as it is to speak with a healthcare provider, talking to your partner is just as key. Your provider is the person who can give you medical advice and help you work on a treatment plan, but your partner is one of the people you see most often, and one of the people who has the most direct impact on your life. Because of this, they may already know something is going on.

Worry can show up in different ways, and it can be hard to know what your partner notices about how you’re feeling until you talk about it directly.

  • Pick your moment: You probably already have some sense of your good days and bad days. Picking a time when you’re feeling more like yourself can help you keep a little distance during this conversation. Try to choose a time when you won’t be interrupted, and try also for a time when your partner isn’t feeling especially stressed or distracted.
  • Introduce the conversation: If you’re not ready for your partner to problem-solve or offer solutions, say so. If you’re asking for a specific kind of help, say that. Setting up the kind of conversation you’re ready for can help you set guidelines and goals, and also ensure that you discuss everything you’d like to touch on.
  • Encourage your partner to seek support: When one partner is struggling, it can be hard on both of you. You may not be feeling up to providing the same kind of support that you would at any other hard time. In some partnerships, it might feel alien to encourage your partner to seek their own emotional support. Whether support comes from extended family members, friends, or a therapist, it can help you both feel stronger.

The specifics of support

“Support” is such a general word, and it can mean so many different things to different people. One of the most common sentiments of people whose partners are suffering from mental health concerns is that they want to help – they’re just not sure how. Taking a moment before sitting down with your partner to make a list of specific things that you can ask of them that might help can be a great place to start.

You may have a clear idea of what your partner could do to help you out a little more during this time, but it can also be very difficult to come up with specific, concrete actions that might help.

A few options to consider include:

  • The gift of space: Consider setting up a specific, regular time when your partner can do an activity that they love to do, and you can spend some quality time with yourself. This is a great time to take a few deep breaths, watch something you love that your partner doesn’t, or visit a therapist if talk therapy is part of your treatment plan.
  • Your least-favorite things: It’s not always easy to ask, but if there’s a task that you usually do that just feels overwhelming these days, like making dinner or paying bills, let them know that you need some help with it.
  • Gatekeeping: If your social life and time with extended family feel like too much, talk to your partner about taking on the role of ambassador to the rest of the family, until you’re ready to be reachable.
  • A little chat: If your provider has recommended talk therapy as a part of your treatment plan for mental illness, it can be helpful to have your partner come with you for a session or two, either to learn a bit more about how you’re feeling or to work out ways that they can help you out during this time.

The first step in combating isolation is to reach out to people you care about in a way that feels right for you. With a little preparation, these meaningful conversations can be helpful too.

Read more
  • “For friends and family members.” MentalHealth.gov. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, September 26 2017. Retrieved June 18 2018. https://www.mentalhealth.gov/talk/friends-family-members.
  • “What is postpartum depression?” American Psychiatric Association. American Psychiatric Association, March 2017. Retrieved June 18 2018. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/postpartum-depression/what-is-postpartum-depression.
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