Last week, I went to a Lunch & Learn that was organized by Health Minds Canada, a “national charity that raises funds to support research and education while raising awareness about mental illness and addictions.” It was a panel discussion on the topic of relationships and mental health. The discussion was moderated by Ola Skudlarska, a community health organizer and mental health advocate. The panelists included:
- Sara Kamin – Relational Psychotherapist at From The Heart Therapy
- Douglas Saunders – Marriage Counselor, Co-founder & Senior Psychologist at Clear Path Solutions, Former President of the OPA
- Shannon Tebb – Matchmaker & Dating Consultant at Shanny in the City.
- Ary Maharaj – Executive Director of Minds Matter magazine, Project Coordinator at UTSC Healthy & Wellness, in a relationship and living with mental illness
- Hanna Gadol – graduate student, single and living with mental illness
For an event that was held in the middle of the work day, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the room was packed. The discussion was fascinating, as it mixed perspectives of those with lived experience of mental illness, as well as mental health professionals. I thought it would make a perfect blog post to write about what I learned, just in time for Valentine’s Day. Without further ado, here are some insights for managing mental illness and relationships:
1) When You Are First Meeting Someone:
Meeting someone when you have a mental illness has many challenges and can bring up many questions. How much do I tell the person on the first date? Do I tell them that I am on medication? If there is a second or a third date, when do you feel comfortable divulging details of your mental illness? Before disclosing your mental illness, it is good to feel a sense of safety first with the person. You should never tell them personal details before you feel ready. However, it is important to keep in mind that a fundamental factor in relationships is connection and that honesty with your partner makes the relationship stronger. In my personal opinion (this was not said in the panel), if a person ghosted me after I told them about my bipolar disorder, than they weren’t right for me. As it was noted in the panel discussion, a partner that accepts who you are is important for a good support system and in treating your mental illness.
2) When You Have Baggage From Previous Relationships:
Bad relationships can impact future relationships and the way you look at the world. Relationships can be stabilizing or triggering, depending on the partner. They can bring back old emotions when you sense a similar pattern in the way that they treat you or the way you react to them. Something to keep in mind is that we often might see something that isn’t there because we have certain expectations. Try to separate previous bad experiences from current relationship. However, it is important to pay attention to your gut feeling and ensure that you get the respect you deserve. It is also important to keep in mind that people who have been hurt, often hurt others and cause pain. We need to acknowledge this and be careful. Try to look at your own behaviour and notice if you are being abusive yourself. Sometimes, we can be treating our partner badly without noticing it.
3) When You Feel Like A Burden:
When dating, focus on what makes you a great partner and what you can offer to relationship. Depression can lead to negative self-esteem but it is important to try to boost your self-image so that you can feel confident in your relationship. As well, try to think about your role in supporting your partner. This can mean taking on some of the responsibility in your own self-care and pushing yourself a little to get out of your comfort zone. Keep in mind that it’s important to be aware of yourself and know your limits. It would also be helpful to put a support system in place outside of the relationship to take the weight off of your partner.
4) When You Are A Partner Of Someone With A Mental Illness:
The partner of someone with mental illness often tends to try to do it all themselves. It is difficult not to feel resentful or frustrated that they are the only one making an effort to nurture and sustain the relationship. First of all, it is extremely important to take care of yourself and engage in self-care. Communication is key – so it is important to express to your partner about how you are feeling. However, it is crucial to give and receive feedback constructively. You need to validate their feelings and whatever you do, when fighting, do not blame the fight on their mental illness. People with mental health issues are often scared to bring up issues because they don’t want to be seen as oversensitive or crazy. Make sure that you have these conversations at the right time and not in the middle of an episode or crisis. Try to understand their subjective experience so you can be empathetic.
5) When You Don’t Know How To Help Your Partner:
It can be discouraging when your partner is experiencing symptoms and their treatment isn’t working. You might feel powerless in the face of their mental illness and wish you could do more to help. There are many ways that you can make a difference for your partner. For example, you can try to understand their triggers so you can help them avoid situations that will exacerbate their mental illness. If they are having a lot of anxiety or negative self-talk, you can play an active role and help them challenge or confront their thoughts. Keep in mind to do this in a kind and gentle way and at the appropriate time. Something else to remember is that you shouldn’t pressure a person with mental illness into social situations. While it is important to help them get outside their comfort zone at times, sometimes you just need to respect their boundaries and their needs. Here is a great article with 15 ways to support a loved one with mental illness if you are looking for more ideas.
6) When You Come From An Unsupportive Community:
There are some communities that aren’t as supportive of mental health. As a person with mental illness or their partner, you can play an active role in challenging the stigma and misconceptions. It may be exhausting but if you have the capacity, be an advocate in these spaces. Help these communities in unlearning their prejudices and re-learning about mental illness from a healthy perspective. As a mental health advocate, it is important to keep in mind the intersection of race, religion, sexuality and their impact on mental health.
So that’s it for the insights I gained from the panel discussion! I thought it would be a great time to discuss relationships and mental health, in time for Valentine’s Day. Do you have any tips for managing mental illness in a relationship? From either the perspective of the person with mental illness or their partner? What about when you BOTH have a mental illness? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!