Mental illness is a powerful force in relationships; often a negative one. When one partner in a marriage or relationship is suffering from a mental illness, the whole family — particularly the other partner — struggles as well. Yet mental illness is often treated by families in ways that are very different from other illnesses. If one partner is diagnosed with cancer, for example, rarely will family members keep the diagnosis a secret or not seek medical intervention immediately. Mental illness is a real problem, and must be treated as such in order for couples and families to manage it in the most effective way possible.
The stigma of mental illness comes from a lack of education and understanding about the different diseases and their symptoms. Motivating couples to gather this education and understanding is crucial to their ability to seek help from professionals. Based a recent YourTango survey on couples and mental illness, 50 percent of experts agree that couples counseling is the most important step married partners can take when one of them is suffering from mental illness. 68 percent of experts agree that the healthy partner plays a significant role in their spouse's healing process. However, we also know that many of these couples don't seek this help simply due to shame and insecurity.
Sometimes the "healthy" partner in the relationship is ashamed or embarrassed of their partner and refuses to talk to anyone about the struggles in their home. They feel alone, lonely, confused, and often angry. This leads to more problems within the relationship, particularly when the spouse with mental illness senses these feelings from the "healthy" partner. If your partner had cancer, wouldn't you reach out for help, accept others' support, and share your story in order to learn from others? Often people who love someone with mental illness refuse to take these important steps, causing the relationship to suffer.
Becoming knowledgeable about mental illness, how common it is, and what symptoms may appear alongside it, is key for a couple to manage the situation in the healthiest way possible. According to our survey, almost 50 percent of our experts say the best step to take after a mental illness diagnosis is to learn as much as possible, so you can make informed decisions about how to deal with problems and issues that may arise as a result of the illness. Seeking support groups, either online or in person, allows the person with the mental illness and their partner to "normalize" the illness, feel less alone, and begin to seek appropriate treatment. Talking to a primary care physician, a call to your employee assistance program, or even a quick Google search, are often good places to start.
If you are in a relationship with someone who has a mental illness, it is important for you to know that the illness must be addressed as you would any other disease or disorder. Get information and arm yourself with knowledge. Learn to face your fears around the stigma of mental illness. If someone judges you or your partner about their illness, then they're not going to be a good support system for you now or in the future. I would recommend keeping your distance from people like this; they will only make your journey more difficult. Once you're armed with information, you can move forward in seeking mental health services for your partner and a support system for yourself.
If your partner refuses to admit that they have a mental health issue, then you must decide for yourself how to proceed with the relationship. First, consider carefully how best to care for yourself, and then ask a specialist to help you address these issues with your partner. Couples can stay together even when one of them struggles with mental illness; however, it's best to do so with the help and support of professionals and people who love you.
Lisa Kaplin is a psychologist and life coach at www.smartwomeninspiredlives.com. You can reach her at Lisa@smartwomeninspiredlives.com.
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